Depression: its causes

An untreated depression usually does not recede on its own.

Sad, low-spirited, listless, tired… all these are typical characteristics of a depression. Surely, dark thoughts may occasionally be part of life. However, such a state of mind, if long-lasting, may be the sign of a depression.

Depression is a mental illness that needs to be taken seriously. An early diagnostic and therapy are important in order to achieve a joyful and well-balanced life.

A person suffering from depression is affected by a lasting state of gloominess, out of which it is almost impossible to come on one’s own. Such feelings are different from “normal” feelings of exhaustion, discouragement and sadness that may occur as a reaction to concrete problems. Every one can feel downhearted at times, however such a state of mind usually recedes once the event has been worked through.

An untreated depression, however, does not recede on its own. It can be triggered by various causes and be totally independent of outer circumstances.

Various influences may lead to depression

In most cases, a depression is caused by various factors. Physical and genetic influences occur together with mental and psychosocial triggers and reinforce each other mutually. Because of the very complex interaction between various causes, there is no such a thing as the “typical” depression.

Biological factors include primarily inherited factors – specific genes that are related to a higher risk of depression. A person having inherited such genes will be more likely predisposed to suffer from depression than another person with a more solid constitution.

Physical causes can also play a role. Cerebral metabolism, for example, can have gone out of balance, and serotonin and/or noradrenalin, two chemical messengers, are not present in the optimal concentration anymore. When the balance of these chemical messengers is disturbed, the impulses between the brain cells can no more take place effectively. Sensory impressions cannot be processed correctly, and feelings and thoughts undergo significant changes.

Winter depression is a frequent seasonal disorder.

Illness as a cause of depression

Illnesses, such as a tumour, a brain injury, a stroke or major hormonal disturbances can also cause a depression. It is often difficult to establish whether the depression occurs as a reaction to the illness, or inversely if it is part of the cause of the illness. Here too, the interaction between mental, physical and psychosocial factors plays an important role. Physical secondary symptoms, such as headaches, exhaustion or sleep disturbances are frequent. Further disturbances can include gastro-intestinal problems, appetite loss of skin changes.

A further factor is the reaction to stress. Research shows that in case of chronic stress, acute psychological trauma or infectious disease, the stress hormone cortisol is released in higher quantities. This can cause behavioural changes and affect sleep, concentration or appetite, as well as have an impact on sexual desire or fear reaction. All these behavioural changes are quite typical manifestations of a depression. According to experts, the imbalance of the stress hormone is determined significantly by each individual’s predisposition. However, it remains to be seen if our capacity to handle stress, problems or crises has not been unlearnt, or if a specific hereditary disposition exerts some influence in some way or other, thus favouring the illness.

Changing life circumstances

Significant life events, that may have to do for example with role reversal or loss, can increase the risk of falling into depression. Heavy traumatic experiences during childhood, the loss of a close person, abuse and violence, as well as emotional neglect can also play a significant part. Going into retirement (especially if early or forced), the birth of a child, bullying, as well as conflicts within the family or the loss of social contacts as a result of migration, all these can be reasons that may increase the risk of depression.

Individual characteristics such as an extreme performance drive, high responsibility awareness as well as a strong, self-critical, perfectionist attitude may also make one more vulnerable to depression.

Some people experience a “winter depression”, or seasonal affective disorder, i.e. a gloomy state of mind on a regular basis during the long winter months. Such a state does not necessarily involve constant sadness, but rather a certain tiredness and loss of interest. Typical characteristics for this seasonal depression are cravings for sweet, calorie-rich food as well as an increased need for sleep.

Metabolic disorders and depression

Certain metabolic disorders such as diabetes, thyroid dysfunctions, neurological disorders such as Parkinson or dementia, are often accompanied by depression. Infectious illnesses such as pneumonia or cardiac disorders also have an impact on mental health.

The elderly people are particularly prone to fall into a depressive state of mind. In later years, significant life changes, illnesses or medication can influence the mind in many ways.

As mentioned, medication can also be responsible for a gloomy state of mind. This can include cardiac or allergy medication, sleeping pills or the like. And last but not least, people addicted to drugs or alcohol can also develop enduring depressive symptoms.

Text: Helga Grafe – 07/2015
Translation: MyH – 08/2015

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