Throughout the world, over 264 million people struggle with depression. Do you suspect that you’re one of them?
To combat this common mental health disorder, it’s important to understand what causes it and who faces the greatest risk of developing it. Read on to learn more about common depression causes and risk factors, as well as some potential treatment options.
What Is Depression?
Depression (also known as major depressive disorder) is a mental illness that negatively affects the way one feels, thinks, and behaves. It may cause intense feelings of sadness, as well as a loss of interest in things that you once loved to do.
Depression symptoms can vary quite a bit from person to person. Some people’s symptoms are very mild, while others are much more severe.
The following are some of the most common warning signs people with depression tend to exhibit:
- Mood changes (typically feeling sad or hopeless)
- Loss of enjoyment in the activities one once enjoyed
- Appetite changes
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Trouble sleeping
- Sleeping too much
- Increased fatigue
- Adoption of purposeless physical activities (such as pacing, wringing the hands, tapping the foot, etc.)
- Slower movements or speech
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating at school or work
- Thoughts of death or thoughts of suicide
To be formally diagnosed with depression, these symptoms must persist for at least two weeks. They must also change your level of functioning from where it was previously.
It’s important to note that many health conditions can mimic the symptoms of depression, including brain tumors and thyroid conditions. Getting checked out by a physician can rule out these potential causes and make it easier for you to get a firm diagnosis.
Consequences of Untreated Depression
If depression is left untreated or is not treated properly, your chances of experiencing more serious health issues increase.
For example, some research has shown a link between untreated major depression and a higher risk of death after having a heart attack.
Untreated depression can contribute to long-term sleep issues, too. Chronic poor sleep can increase one’s chances of gaining weight and becoming obese. Obesity, in turn, comes with more health problems, including an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
People who are clinically depressed may also be more prone to drug and alcohol abuse. If their symptoms go unaddressed for too long, they may even decide that they no longer want to live and will take their own lives.
Depression is a multifaceted condition. Many different issues can cause depression symptoms, but the following are some of the most well-known:
Some people are genetically predisposed to depression. In fact, some studies even suggest that depression is roughly 40 percent determined by a person’s genetics.
If you have a family history of depression, you might be more likely to experience it yourself. One study showed that a person’s chances of developing depression doubled if they had a parent or grandparent with depression.
Researchers don’t know for sure which genes contribute to depression. They have found, though, that several different genes can play a role. They’ve also made it clear that genes, alone, are not always the deciding factor, and that environmental influences are also part of the picture.
In addition to genetic predisposition, chemical imbalances can also cause or contribute to depression symptoms. Some researchers believe that depression is caused by an imbalance in neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers, and many of them play important roles in mood regulation, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. If a person is deficient in or has too much of one (or more) these neurotransmitters, it may cause or worsen their symptoms of depression.
Major Life Events
Sometimes, a person develops depression after they’ve experienced a major life event. Many different kinds of events could be traumatic and cause depression. The following are some common examples to keep in mind:
- Death of a loved one
- End of a relationship
- Moving to a new place
- Starting a new phase of life (getting a new job, going to college, getting married, etc.)
This last point is particularly noteworthy. Even seemingly positive events, like going away to college, can be triggering, especially to those who are predisposed to depression.
When someone is diagnosed with a serious illness, their chances of developing depression increase.
People who have terminal illnesses or who have had a serious scare (such as a heart attack or stroke) may experience symptoms of depression as they grieve their diagnosis and fear for the future. It’s also common for those who have chronic illnesses like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, or cancer to become depressed.
Certain medications can cause depression symptoms as a side effect.
Commonly used drugs like isotretinoin (which is used to treat acne), interferon-alpha (an antiviral drug), and corticosteroids all can increase one’s chances of depression. Some people become depressed after starting birth control pills, too.
Depression Risk Factors
If any of the above apply to you, you might be more prone to depression than others. Here are some other common depression risk factors to be aware of:
Women are approximately twice as likely to experience depression as men.
Researchers aren’t completely sure why this is the case. However, they suspect that it has to do (at least in part) with the presence of female hormones like estrogen and progesterone.
Women experience more intense hormonal fluctuations, especially during their reproductive years. These ups and down may contribute to mood changes and cause imbalances that cause or worsen depression symptoms.
Some people find that they’re more prone to depression at certain times of the year, particularly when winter arrives and the sun is not out as often. This condition is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short).
When you aren’t exposed to sunlight as often, you may experience a decrease in serotonin levels in your brain. You may also experience changes in melatonin production, which can throw off your sleep cycles and exacerbate mood issues.
There is some early research that suggests vitamin and nutrient deficiencies can cause or worsen symptoms of depression.
For example, some studies show that a lack of omega-3 fatty acids, or an excessive amount of omega-6 fatty acids, is linked to increases in depression. Diets high in sugar have been linked to depression, too.
These kinds of diets might contribute to depression symptoms because they increase inflammation in the body and the brain. Recent studies have revealed a connection between depression and high levels of inflammation, although it’s unclear if depression causes the inflammation or vice versa.
Alcohol or Drug Use
Alcohol and drug use can both cause or exacerbate depression symptoms, too. This is a tricky one because it’s not always clear which comes first, the depression or the substance abuse.
For example, someone might feel depressed and then turn to alcohol or drugs to help them cope. Others might develop a dependency on these substances first, and then experience depression, guilt, or shame because of their dependence.
Depression Treatment Options
Depression is a serious mental health condition, but it is treatable. The following are some potential treatment options that can help someone with depression manage their symptoms, improve their mood, and feel more like their old self:
Often, those who are struggling with depression feel better when they start taking an antidepressant. There are many different types of antidepressants, including these common prescriptions:
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (or SSRIs): These drugs improve the way in which the brain uses the neurotransmitter serotonin
- Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (or SNRIs): These drugs improve the ways in which the brain uses serotonin and norepinephrine
- Tricyclic Antidepressants: These drugs are similar to SNRIs, but they tend to come with more side effects than other medications
Communicating with a therapist and having regular psychotherapy sessions can also help those with depression to work through their feelings and find relief from their symptoms.
Many people find significant relief when they begin psychotherapy. They also find that it can increase the effectiveness of their antidepressants.
Physical activity helps the brain to produce endorphins, which are chemical messengers that have a positive effect on one’s mood. For mild depression symptoms, exercise can be a great management tool. Others find more relief when they combine it with psychotherapy and or antidepressant use.
Some people benefit the most when they get away for a while and stay in a residential treatment center. These facilities give them a chance to take a break from regular life while also working with a certified therapist, receiving medication to help them manage their symptoms, and participating in other types of therapy (art therapy, journaling, yoga, meditation, etc.).
Get Help for Depression Today
The more informed you are about the causes and risk factors of depression, the easier it is to spot warning signs and get help as soon as possible.