What Causes Depression?

The following causes all tie into each other. They are issues, beyond the more chemical and biological components of the illness, that created negative patterns from which I began to develop depression.

Mental illness is caused by a combination of factors, including possible genetic vulnerability, stressful environments and chemical imbalances. There are several neurotransmitters (chemicals that help send signals between different parts of the brain) that help to regulate mood, adrenaline, stress responses, etc..  With depression, they can become over or under produced and disrupt the normal regulation of thought and emotion. Antidepressants are used to help restore normal levels of these biochemicals, though their testing and development can take a long time as we learn from trial and error and patients’ responses.

Whether issues with my mental health were already developing or my environment caused enough stress to set my deterioration into motion is difficult to know. What’s more important is that I didn’t recognize when my health began to worsen, nor did I seek help early on.

Anyone can become depressed in the wrong environment.

A predisposition is not required to develop depression and sleep deprivation, poor diet, lack of exercise, and social isolation can by themselves cause mental health issues.

Developing depression doesn’t always require a stressful environment. My environment in 2009, which seemed incredibly distressing to me at the time, was not that different from other points in my life. What was changing was my ability to deal with and handle stress. My body was sending off stress responses all the time, overwhelming me with panicked thoughts. Imagine feeling like you are in a life or death situation and how tense and anxious you would be about the smallest details around you. For days, then weeks and months, this was how my body reacted to everyday life. These increases in stress and anxiety put me on a path that led to further emotional volatility and depression.

Key factors in my experience with depression.

Lack of Knowledge and Education:

  • I was not aware nor did I recognize the symptoms of depression as they developed. I also didn’t know enough about depression to understand that recovery was indeed possible.

Lack of Exercise:

  • Sports and physical fitness had been a part of my life throughout elementary and high school. During my time at university I went to the gym frequently at first then  slowly over time (ending in 2009) I stopped going altogether.

Negative Thinking Patterns: 

  • Over thinking and ruminating: When I try to look at a problem analytically and examine my options I can get bogged down in my thoughts, continuously ruminated on the problem.
  • Much of the time I was filled with a silent anger and alienation towards life. I constantly derided myself and shut myself off from those around me.
  • Absolutes: As my thinking became more distressed, I thought in absolutes, assumed the worse and worried about my future.
  • There are many other negative thinking patterns that I was also getting lost in at the time (Wikipedia has a good summary of these under Cognitive Distortions).

Lack of Social Life and Isolation:

  • In university, I spent many lectures by myself not participating in class or talking to those around me. I thought of excuses not to introduce myself and rarely had meaningful conversations. In first year I had formed a small group of friends with people from high school but that group drifted apart and though I made some classroom friends here and there, I didn’t really replace it.
  • Though I had friends, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my emotions with them and instead kept my negative thoughts and worries inside.
  • I was also very self-conscious and slowly became more withdrawn and silent which interfered with my ability to approach new people and make friends.

Society and Stigma:

  • I never talked about my emotions with others and avoided the subject when anyone asked how I was doing. I was always “pretty good” and things where always going “pretty well”.
  • I further degraded myself for feeling poorly and thinking I should have been stronger and more able to cope with the areas of my life that I perceived as the causes my stress and sadness.

Lack of Sleep:

  • For years I had gotten into the habit of lying in bed and reviewing my day before falling asleep. As my anxiety increased, this routine meant negatively critiquing my day and life. I’d go over all the things I had done wrong during the day, all the opportunities I had missed.

Inadequate Treatment:

  • Though the help I received was relatively good for my situation and where I live (family doctor, outpatient services), I still needed more individual care. I also needed to be convinced that recovery was possible so I could remove myself from the spiral of despair and self-destruction depression had caused.

I don’t like to think about what could, would or should have been but I truly believe had I known more about mental health, and not only recognized but took action to stop some of the negative patterns above, I may not have developed depression or at least not to extent I did.