“Why am I depressed?” If you’re suffering from depression or suspect that you might be, this is a common question. We think that depression is always caused by external factors—life events and situations that cause us to feel sad, hopeless, or helpless.

Losing a job, a loved one, or a significant relationship can all trigger depression. Yet, not everyone who goes through tough situations experiences full-blown depression. If no external event is present to trigger the depression, you might just write it off as a “chemical imbalance.”

The truth is, there are many risk factors for major depression, and understanding all of them can help lead you to a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Depression risk factors fall into two basic categories—physical and psychological. We often hear about chemical imbalances in the brain as being the cause of depression. In general terms, this means that certain neurotransmitters that are responsible for mood stabilization—dopamine, serotonin, and GABA to name a few—are not doing their job.

Psychologically, we might be prone to depression because of our coping mechanisms or attitudes. But what are the risk factors for depression? Why do some people experience full-blown depressive episodes while others seem more able to handle life stress and maintain a positive attitude?

The Genetic Link

One risk factor for depression is genetics. Your mood is controlled by chemical processes within the brain that determine how you handle life stress. The way your body performs these processes is affected by genetics. Our DNA is responsible for producing different proteins that are used in these chemical processes, and, if the DNA is sending the wrong messages, those chemical processes will make you more vulnerable to experiencing mood instability.

What does this mean?

It means that, if you have a family history of depression or other mood disorders, your risk of developing depression increases. While genetics aren’t the sole cause of depression, you can have a “genetic predisposition” to the disorder. In other words, your genetics make you more sensitive to long-term stress and, therefore, a major depressive episode. If one of your immediate family members has experienced a depressive episode, you have a 1.5% to 3% greater chance of having bouts with depression.

The Psychological Link

While there are physical factors within the brain and our DNA that might leave us predisposed to depression, the picture would be incomplete if we didn’t look at psychological risk factors. Depression is, after all, most notably associated with its psychological effects—sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, and a chronic “blue mood.” The way we view and cope with life has a lot to do with whether or not we’ll develop depression in certain situations.

Early childhood experiences, such as the death of a loved one or emotional abandonment by a parent or caregiver, can set us up for depression later in life. We learn our coping mechanisms as we grow, and, if we experience a traumatic event before we’ve matured enough to handle it emotionally, we’re much more likely to develop a negative outlook. If we didn’t feel safe expressing certain negative emotions as children or adolescents, we will carry those emotions with us into adulthood, and they might manifest as depression.

Our temperament and coping skills have a huge impact on how we handle life. Events are emotionally neutral, but the emotions we experience in response to those events depend in large part on how we handle stress—our attitude.

If we have a generally positive attitude, stressful or traumatic events might affect us, but we’re more likely to be able to handle any sadness or anger fairly well. On the other hand, if we view life with a negative attitude, we’re much more sensitive to depression in the face of stressful or traumatic events, and we’re more likely to see relatively insignificant events as stressful or traumatic. Those with certain temperaments (such as being easily agitated or tending to withdraw from relationships) are at greater risk for major depressive episodes, especially when faced with separation, loss, disappointment or rejection.

The Illness Link

Depression can be linked to other physical health problems. Certain diseases tend to precipitate a depressed mood. Between 10% and 15% of all depressions are directly linked to a medical condition such as thyroid imbalance or heart disease. In some cases, the depression might be due to the stress of coping with the illness. In other cases, the illness itself creates an imbalance of neurotransmitters, which are responsible for stabilizing moods.

The following conditions can be risk factors for depression:

  • multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders
  • cancer
  • nutritional deficiency
  • stroke
  • hepatitis
  • HIV, lupus, and other immune system diseases
  • hormonal imbalances due to adrenal gland or parathyroid dysfunction

It is important for anyone dealing with a major illness to investigate the possible link between their medical condition and a major depressive episode.

The Stress Link

Stress is most likely the biggest risk factor for depression. Making too many commitments, financial problems, separation or loss of a loved one, disagreements with our friends or partners—these all add up to stress, and stress triggers reactions (both physical and emotional) that can lead to depression in some cases.

When we’re under stress, the body reacts. We produce certain hormones and chemicals to prepare to deal with the stress. This is called the fight-or-flight response. We’re going to need to be ready to either take the stress head-on or run away from it.

Because of differences in each individual’s biology—mostly due to genetics—each of our bodies responds to stress differently. Some of us are more sensitive to stress, which can lead to our being easily upset or agitated. This heightened sensitivity is partially biological and partially emotional. If our bodies don’t produce the right brain chemicals in the right amounts when we’re under stress, we’re more likely to experience depression. On the other hand, if our coping skills or temperament make us less able to handle stress, we face the same problem.

Anyone facing long-term stress or traumatic events such as death, serious illness, separation from a loved one, abuse or a major loss that threatens their security (such as the loss of a job) is at greater risk for major depression.

What Does this Mean?

With so many different risk factors, what can we do? Understanding the risk factors for depression helps doctors and therapists treat the disorder. Understanding physical risk factors enables medical professionals to know when medication might be a vital treatment option. Recognizing certain coping mechanisms, attitudes, and temperaments within an individual can lead a therapist to appropriate therapies.

Ultimately, it’s important to look at all sides of this disturbance. It’s also important to remember that, even if you are at a greater risk for depression due to any or all of these factors, there is help available. Life can feel better if you take the initiative and get the help you need.

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