Causes of Depression

Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on August 14, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 14, 2014

What Is Depression?

Depression is a disorder affecting mood and general outlook. Sometimes called “the blues,” it’s characterized by a loss of interest in activities or feeling sad and down. Even though most people feel sad or down for brief periods throughout life, clinical depression is more than just feeling sad. Depression is a serious medical condition and people usually aren’t able to just get over a depressive state. Talk to your doctor if you think you are suffering from depression or a major depressive disorder. People of any age and life situation can have depression.

Untreated depression can have lasting impacts, from employment issues, strain on relationships and drug and alcohol use, to suicidal thoughts or attempts. Most people go on to live healthy and happy lives with treatment. For some, depression is a lifelong challenge and must be considered and treated on a long-term basis.

What Are the Symptoms of Depression?

While the symptoms of depression can vary depending on the severity, there are some standard symptoms to watch for. Depression not only affects your thought and feelings, it can also impact how you act, what you say, and your relationships with others. Common symptoms include:

  • sadness
  • tiredness
  • trouble focusing or concentrating
  • unhappiness
  • anger
  • irritability
  • frustration
  • loss of interest in pleasurable or fun activities
  • sleep issues (too much or too little)
  • no energy
  • craving unhealthy foods
  • anxiety
  • isolation
  • restlessness
  • worrying
  • trouble thinking clearly or making decisions
  • poor performance at work or school
  • dropping out of activities
  • guilt
  • suicidal thoughts or tendencies
  • pain, like headaches or muscle aches
  • drug or alcohol abuse

Some people also show signs of mania, psychotic episodes, or changes in motor abilities. These can signify other types of depression, like bipolar disorder.

What Causes Depression?

Depression isn’t a simple condition with a known cause. Some people are more susceptible to depressive episodes while others are not. It’s important to discuss symptoms with your doctor. There are several possible causes of depression.

Genetic

Depression may be an inherited condition. You may have a higher likelihood of experiencing a depressive disorder at some point in your life if you have a family member with depression. The exact gene involved in this is unknown.

Biochemical

Some people have noticeable changes in their brains with depression. Even though this potential cause isn’t understood, it does suggest that depression starts with the functioning of the brain. Similarly, some psychiatrists look at brain chemistry with cases of depression.

Neurotransmitters in the brain — specifically serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine — affect feelings of happiness and pleasure and may be out of balance in people with depression. Antidepressants work to balance these neurotransmitters, mainly serotonin. Why these neurotransmitters get out of balance and exactly what role they play in depressive states isn’t fully understood.

Hormonal

Changes in hormone production or functioning could also lead to the onset of depressive states. Any changes in hormone states — including menopause, childbirth, thyroid problems, or other disorders — could cause depression.

With postpartum depression, mothers develop symptoms of depression after the birth of their child. While it’s perfectly normal to be emotional because of the changing hormones, postpartum depression is a serious condition.

Seasonal

As the daylight hours get shorter in the winter, many people develop feelings of lethargy, tiredness, and a loss of interest in everyday tasks. Called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, this condition usually goes away once the days get longer. Your doctor may prescribe medication and/or a light box to help treat SAD.

Situational

Any time of trauma, big change, or struggle in life can trigger a case of depression. Losing a loved one, being fired, having financial troubles, or undergoing a serious change can have a big impact on people.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a form of depression that occurs after a serious situation in life. PTSD is often diagnosed in soldiers returning from war. It can also occur as a result of:

  • childhood trauma
  • seeing something life-changing and scary
  • being abused or assaulted
  • a serious car or other accident
  • being diagnosed with a life-threatening condition

How Is Depression Diagnosed?

To diagnose depression your doctor will do a full examination, including medical history. They will also do a psychiatric evaluation. Since depression cannot be tested for using blood tests, your doctor will ask you questions about your thoughts and feelings. They will give you a diagnosis based on your symptoms and answers.

How Is Depression Treated?

In order to treat your depression your doctor may prescribe medication, psychotherapy, or both. It can take time to find a combination that works for you. Treatment solutions will be tailored to your specific case since causes and symptoms of depression can vary.

Exercise, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and sticking with a routine can help keep depression under control.

Discuss your symptoms with your doctor to  find an effective treatment plan.

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