What causes depression?

Cerebrum logo head with cogs inThere’s no one cause of depression; it varies very much from person to person and can occur through a combination of factors. Although depression doesn’t seem to be inherited through genes (with the possible exception of manic depression), some of us are more prone to depression than others. This could be because of the way we’re made, or because of our experiences or family background.

I was so scared of being alone with my thoughts. At night, everything seemed so bleak. I couldn’t concentrate on anything; I couldn’t read or watch TV. I couldn’t relax or unwind. Sleep seemed impossible – so many thoughts were racing through my mind. I would spend hours fantasising about ways of killing myself.

Past experiences can have a profound effect on how we feel about ourselves in the present, and if those feelings are very negative, they can be the start of a downward spiral. In many cases, the first time someone becomes depressed, it’s triggered by an unwelcome or traumatic event, such as being sacked, divorced, physically attacked or raped.

Depression is seen by some experts as a form of unfinished mourning. Often events or experiences that trigger depression can also be seen as a loss of some kind. It could be following the actual death of someone close, a major life change (such as moving house or changing jobs) or simply moving from one phase of life into another, as we reach retirement or our children leave home. It’s not just the negative experience that causes the depression, but how we deal with it. If the feelings provoked are not expressed or explored at the time, they fester and contribute towards depression. It’s important to acknowledge and grieve over what we have lost in order to be able to move on successfully.

Everything to do with everyday life seemed like such hard work. I simply didn’t have the energy to go to work, to see friends, to shop, cook or clean. It all seemed pointless! What was the point in eating, when I didn’t even want to be alive?

Depression may also be caused by an underactive thyroid. The thyroid gland controls metabolic rate and, if it is not working properly, can cause you to experience various symptoms. If it is underactive, you will feel sluggish and lethargic, may put on weight, and feel depressed. If it is overactive, you may feel very speeded up, lose weight and have symptoms similar to mania. It is important to have a thyroid function test (a simple blood test) to make sure that this is not the cause of your depression, especially if you cannot account for it in other ways, such as recent life events. If an underactive thyroid is diagnosed, it can be treated successfully with appropriate medication (see Useful websites).

Anecdotal evidence suggests that occasionally people become very depressed in response to certain foods. Such a reaction is very individual, and people are often not aware of the particular food substance or drink that is causing the problem. But if you suddenly feel depressed for no apparent reason, it may be worth considering whether you have eaten or drunk something new, and whether this might have caused your sudden change of mood. If this is the cause, your mood should lift very quickly, so long as you don’t consume any more of the particular item.


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