There are many causes of depression and different things can cause the same effect for some people. It is important to understand what kind of depression you may be dealing with before going on any treatment or medication that could have serious side effects.
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We saw in the previous article in this series on the history of depression that its causes have been attributed to a variety of theories, including an excess of “black bile” in the body, the sin of sloth, incorrect thinking, enervating luxury, subconscious conflicts, and a biological imbalance in the brain. Some of those concepts are still alive and well, but in a different shape and improved in light of new findings. Today, we’ll look at the different recent ideas about what makes someone susceptible to sadness and causes the black dog to appear.
It’s difficult to tell how much genetics plays a role in depression, but scientists are certain that it does. Studies on identical and fraternal twins who were separated at birth have given them confidence in this. Because identical twins have the same DNA, researchers can discover how heredity influences everything from heart disease to religion to depression by seeing how they grow in various situations. According to studies, when one identical twin develops depression, the other develops depression 67 percent of the time, regardless of their unique life circumstances or familial environment.
When compared to fraternal twins who were separated at birth, this is a significant difference. Fraternal twins, unlike identical twins, generally only share around half of their DNA. According to studies on fraternal twins separated at birth, if one twin gets depression, the other twin experiences depression 19% of the time.
The fact that identical and fraternal twins have different rates of depression suggests that there is a genetic component to the disorder.
However, it is important to note that DNA plays just one function. Remember that only 67 percent of identical twins suffer from depression, indicating that variables such as upbringing, life experience, and thinking patterns may and do influence a person’s predisposition to depression.
So, which genes are responsible for depression? Over the years, a number suspects have been postulated, the most noteworthy of which being the 5-HTT gene. Individuals with two short alleles of the 5-HTT gene had a more nervous or “neurotic” temperament and were more likely to become depressed after a stressful experience, according to a 2003 research. Individuals with two long alleles had a lower risk of getting depressed after a stressful event. In 2009, however, a research revealed no link between the 5-HTT gene and depression.
What’s more plausible is that there isn’t a single gene or set of genes that causes depression. Rather, sadness might be the product of several genes interacting in complicated ways. Genes that give someone an anxious temperament may not directly cause depression, but they might make them more susceptible to stress, which, if not controlled well, can lead to profound sadness.
In the end, experts know that genetics play a role in depression susceptibility, but they can’t specify how much. Many experts believe they will never be able to; DNA is simply one component that is intricately linked to many others.
Chemistry of the Mind
Depression has been described as a mental illness caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain for the last thirty years or more. Depression may be cured by merely taking a drug that restores equilibrium, according to popular belief.
Neurotransmitters – tiny small substances that convey information between neurons in your brain — are said to be out of balance. Researchers believe that a few neurotransmitters, the two most important of which are dopamine and serotonin, are involved in the development of depression.
You may thank the neurotransmitter dopamine each time you feel inspired to perform anything or to gain some type of reward. Dopamine is the chemical that drives our need for food, shelter, and sex. Dopamine also encourages us to do new things and have new experiences of all sorts, and we receive a hit of it when we do things like climb a mountain, play video games, or even check our email. According to research, people with depression have lower levels of dopamine in their brains or have reduced dopamine sensitivity than those who aren’t sad. Poor dopamine or low dopamine sensitivity is likely a factor in why people who are depressed lack motivation to accomplish anything, even get out of bed.
While the brain imbalance hypothesis of depression provided a simple and understandable explanation for its etiology, its present premises are being called into doubt.
Serotonin is the other neurotransmitter that has received a lot of study in connection to depression. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates hunger, sex desire, and mood. Low levels of serotonin in the brain have been suggested as one of the key causes of depression over the last thirty years by researchers, psychiatrists, and therapists. As a result, the most effective antidepressants are designed to increase this neurotransmitter.
However, new study suggests that serotonin may have no impact on depression, and that the effect may be the polar opposite of what was previously thought. For example, when scientists raised mice with no capacity to produce serotonin and then put them through a battery of behavioral tests, the mice showed no indications of sadness (yes, mice can be depressed), albeit they did become more aggressive. A more damning research discovered that those with higher serotonin activity were more likely to be depressed than people with lower levels. In other words, instead than too little serotonin causing sadness, too much of it might be the problem.
Hormones, in addition to neurotransmitters, may have an effect on depression. Individuals with reduced testosterone levels, for example, have been linked to an increased risk of depression. This might explain why women are more prone than males to become sad, and why men who get testosterone replacement treatment occasionally experience a mood boost. Scientists think that testosterone stimulates the creation of dopamine, which improves mood.
Major Life-Changing Negative Events
Job loss, divorce, and the diagnosis of a severe illness are all examples of negative life events that may contribute to depression. While it may appear that feeling down after such misfortunes is a normal reaction rather than a disorder, the DSM classifies all post-negative-life-event sadness (that meets criteria we’ll discuss in the next post) as depression, unless the sadness is caused by the death of a friend or family member (in which case it’s “normal” grief, not depression). There was some controversy about classifying mourning as a mental condition in the most recent DSM, but it was eventually kept out.
In various ways, chronic stress makes a person’s body and mind more sensitive to depression.
While a little stress is healthy for you now and then, too much stress may have terrible consequences for your body and mind, including a higher risk of depression.
When you’re stressed, the amount of cortisol in your body rises. The release of this hormone stimulates the creation of dopamine in your brain, prompting you to take action to relieve stress. That’s fantastic if the stress is brief and consistent; the stress reaction is what motivates you to pass an exam, win a race, or even save your own life. When the stress is extended, though, it becomes an issue. Dopamine is depleted rather than increased when you have too much cortisol for too long; prolonged stress effectively “breaks” your dopamine system. You become sluggish, emotionally dulled, and uninspired to accomplish anything in the absence of that motivational neurotransmitter, which are all symptoms of depression.
Chronic stress may physically affect areas of the brain in addition to changing neurotransmitters and hormones. Excessive and chronic cortisol exposure decreases the hippocampus, making a person more sensitive to depression, according to some study. Cortisol, on the other hand, expands the amygdala, making people more sensitive to negative emotional cues — such as sad news articles or everyday disappointments — and less susceptible to pleasant emotional stimuli — such as obtaining a raise or simply seeing a smiling face. As a consequence, the individual becomes hyper-aware of the unpleasant aspects of life, which may lead to increased anxiety and, eventually, melancholy.
Men are more likely than women to be depressed as a result of chronic stress. According to research, when women are confronted with stressful events, their bodies produce more oxytocin, which encourages them to reach out to others. This is referred to as the “tend and befriend” stress response by researchers. Women’s negative emotions associated with stressful circumstances may be mitigated and alleviated through social contact. During unpleasant and scary events, men, on the other hand, generate less oxytocin and are more likely to respond with the “fight or flight” reaction. Constantly feeling compelled to fight or flee stimuli may wear a man’s head down and put him at risk of depression.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) proponents think that negative thoughts and behaviors are a major cause of depression. Rumination, catastrophizing, me-always-everything thinking, and obliviousness to the good, according to CBT therapists, may all contribute to a detrimentally gloomy mentality. As a result, overcoming depression is mostly a question of confronting and modifying unfavorable thinking patterns.
While it’s true that pessimistic and negative thought patterns are linked to depression, it’s difficult to determine with confidence if bad thinking causes depression or depression causes negative thinking. It’s more plausible that ideas and emotions are linked in a feedback loop, influencing and feeding into one another.
This is one of the most fascinating (and controversial) ideas about depression’s beginnings. According to certain evolutionary psychologists, sadness may have an adaptive or evolutionary function.
At first glance, it seems to be a contradiction. How can something that makes you feel bad, demotivates you, and maybe makes you suicidal give an evolutionary advantage?
According to the hypothesis, our many emotions — joyful, sad, angry, and nervous — are signals that have developed over hundreds of thousands of years to motivate us to act in ways that advance our basic evolutionary goals of reproduction and survival. Anxiety made our caveman forefathers more aware of their surroundings in order to avoid attacks from predators or neighboring tribes; anger prompted action to eliminate an existential threat; and happiness inspired a more curious and open-minded attitude toward new ideas and experiences, such as trying new foods or exploring new territory.
But what if you’re in a depressed mood? How may a pessimistic outlook have assisted survival? There are a few theories as to what the solution is. Nature’s technique of advising humans (and other animals) to stop a self-defeating habit or withdraw from an activity that might be harmful or wasteful could be a poor mood. In certain cases, it would have been better for our prehistoric forefathers to give up, go home and mope for a while, and live to fight another day.
Another argument is that sadness, with its accompanying lethargy and lack of desire, gave a survival benefit by keeping animals and our caveman ancestors close to home as the environment became more dangerous. Some researchers believe that this explains “seasonal affective disorder”; we may feel down in the dumps during the winter because the cold, grey, sunless skies signal to our prehistoric brains that going out would be futile and possibly dangerous, and that staying close to home and conserving energy would be a better survival strategy.
A gloomy mood may have also prompted our prehistoric forefathers to hide near the home-cave and consider how to deal with a survival or reproduction crisis. Perhaps there was a bison scarcity, or Joe Q. Caveman was frequently snubbed by the local cavewomen. Joe’s bad mood as a result of these difficulties may have aided him in reflecting on the situation and deciding what to do.
While these beliefs may seem dubious, evolutionary psychologists back up their claims with research that indicate individuals in bad moods are better at assessing their surroundings. This enhanced skill is referred to as “depressive realism” by researchers. In a famous experiment, participants were asked to click a button and assess how much influence they thought they had over whether or not a light turned on. The participants didn’t truly have any influence over the light, and melancholy people realized this sooner than their joyful counterparts.
Another way that a bad mood prepares us for analysis is that it forces us to think deeply about our issues. Rumination, or thinking about an issue over and over again, is a typical sign of depression. Excessive rumination, particularly if it exclusively focuses on the nature of your mood and feelings, may simply lead to further depression, which is why therapists typically attempt to urge their patients to stop doing it. However, there may be an advantage to it. Focused rumination has been proven in many studies to break down difficult issues into smaller components, making them more manageable. This technique is aided by the melancholic’s social isolation and lack of interest in other activities, which drives a person to focus on an issue until they crack the nut.
Thus, sadness may have some advantages (if controlled and directed), and its cause might be a primitive brain attempting to help us survive and better navigate a dangerous terrain. Unfortunately, our contemporary world’s environment has hijacked this potentially beneficial reaction and twisted it into something that makes us unwell.
A Mismatch Between Our Ancient Brains and Modern Life
We currently live in a totally different manner than we did thousands of years before. This mismatch may be contributing to rising incidence of depression.
“How come depression is so much more widespread in a country with more money, more power, more records, more books, and more education than it was when the country was less affluent and powerful?” –Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism
Depression’s evolutionary origins, according to mood experts, may explain why rates of depression have grown tenfold in the past 100 years. Our bodies, brains, and mood systems developed for a world that no longer exists, and this mismatch is likely causing an increasing number of people to be unhappy.
Depression is exceedingly uncommon among societies and tribes who live in a similar way to our ancient predecessors, which supports this argument. “Researchers have assessed modern-day hunter-gatherer bands — such as the Kaluli people of the New Guinea highlands — for the presence of mental illness, and they found that clinical depression is almost completely nonexistent among such groups,” says Dr. Stephen Ilardi, clinical psychologist at the University of Kansas and author of The Depression Cure.
People like the Kaluli, according to llardi, live a lifestyle that is in line with their developed biology and psychology, and their way of life effectively serves as a natural antidepressant. “They’re too busy to sit around gloomy,” Ilardi says. They receive plenty of exercise and sunshine. Their food is high in omega-3 fatty acids, they have a high amount of social interaction, and they get up to 10 hours of sleep on a regular basis.”
Modern people, on the other hand, are sleep deprived, sedentary, and seldom leave their fluorescent-lit cubicles. We, the inhabitants of the twenty-first century, are also very isolated. Ancient tribesmen lived in close-knit groups; now, we live as dispersed individuals who must frequently face life’s disappointments and defeats alone. Waves of sorrow are amplified many times in our lonely echo chambers, when our major emphasis is on ourselves.
Expectations of Happiness and Comfort that are Unreasonably High
Modern society is ruled by “smiling fascism,” according to psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, in which if you aren’t happy all of the time, something is wrong with you.
Another explanation for the rise in depression might be that we aren’t truly suffering from it any more, but we mistakenly believe we are because we’ve raised the bar on what it means to be happy. And what may have started as a brief attack of discontent in a previous era might quickly escalate into the real deal.
If you haven’t already noticed, contemporary civilization puts an abnormally high value on happiness and comfort. There are millions of books and blog postings on how to hack happiness, and the underlying message is typically this: if you’re not always cheerful — and living your ideal life right now! — something is wrong with you. Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, psychologists, label today’s overemphasis on happiness “smiling fascism” in their book The Upside of Your Dark Side. And the pressure to march in lock-step to the beat of an ever-faster drum may be making us more unhappy and sad.
According to research, if happiness is your objective, you’re less likely to be happy. This is due to a number of factors. To begin with, societal assumptions of what happiness entails are sometimes erroneous. Happiness, as presently defined, is a transient emotion that comes and goes. For most individuals, being giddy all of the time is impossible. As a result, when they set the aim of always being joyful, they fall short, leaving them feeling frustrated and inadequate. If you keep repeating this pattern, you’ll end yourself in a rut for a long time.
Making happiness your objective might also backfire since we’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy in the long run. This is referred to as the “time travelers” dilemma by Kashdan and Biswas-Diener. When we choose a goal for ourselves that we believe will bring us happiness in the future, we do it from the perspective of our present selves. But the trouble is that we evolve through time, and that aim may not be what makes our future selves happy.
We’ve upped our expectations for comfort and ease at the same time as we’ve raised our standards for what it means to be happy. Fast internet, comfy mattresses, climate-controlled rooms, and quick and painless customer service are no longer considered luxuries, but rather basic human rights.
However, our desire, rather, demand, for a stress-free existence may be setting us up for severe anxiety and melancholy. As a society’s comfort level rises, so does its tolerance for discomfort. This is true not just for the difficulties we face in the outside world, but also for the deeper sentiments we experience inside ourselves. Sadness was long thought to be a normal part of life’s ebb and flow, as we covered in our essay about the history of depression. A pessimistic outlook was one of numerous temperaments humans were born with, each with its own set of benefits and downsides. Fast forward to today, when we see unpleasant emotions like sorrow, rage, and guilt as a divergence from what we should be experiencing since they make us feel awful. Rather of learning to live with our most difficult feelings, we label them as mentally disordered and do everything we can to eliminate them. When we fail to meet our high expectations due to our stubbornly gloomy temperament, the gap between our high expectations and reality might leave us disappointed and even more unpleasant than before.
As a result of our unwillingness to be comfortable with discomfort, we’ve weakened our psyches and left ourselves more vulnerable to the exact feelings we sought to avoid in the first place.
So, what are the causes of depression? The simple answer is that we still don’t truly know despite thousands of years of speculating and heaps of current study.
Depression is a complicated condition. While it’s easy to blame one reason for depression, the truth is that it’s the product of a complex interplay of events that’s virtually hard to unravel. We may never be able to pinpoint the exact reasons of depression since the causes are so complicated and variable, particularly on an individual, case-by-case basis.
This uncertainty is naturally annoying in some ways, but it is also liberating in others (you’ll notice a similar trend in the ending of these pieces!). The best way to cope with depression may not be to wait for experts to tell you what’s causing it, but to construct your own narrative based on good logic that leads you to take the most effective action.
I’ve found that looking at my depression through the lens of evolutionary psychology has been the most beneficial for me.
You must always be cautious of “just so” theories, as with any evolutionary explanation for behavior. However, I find evolutionary theory fascinating because it adds some much-needed depth to the debate over the black dog.
Instead than being a fully negative and disordered mood state, sadness becomes a natural mood state with both costs and advantages. The aim becomes regulating your low moods so that you may reap the benefits while minimizing and limiting the disadvantages. Even proponents of depression’s evolutionary origins would contend that low emotions may become harmful and even life threatening beyond a certain point. When depression reaches this degree of intensity, it no longer serves any purpose, and all efforts should be made to relieve it.
A melancholy funk, on the other hand, may operate as an early warning system for those who have moderate low moods throughout the year or are in the throes of a severe (but not paralyzing) depression. “Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is unquestionably wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls,” writer Lee Stringer said of depression. That’s a great concept.
Whether or not the evolutionary explanation of depression is correct, the acts it recommends to treat it are unquestionably some of the most successful for taming the dark dog: eating properly, exercising, decreasing stress, going out in nature, belonging to a small group, and so on.
Perhaps those who are inclined to having a positive attitude and participating in healthy habits don’t need the nudge of sadness to motivate them to live a better lifestyle; if they fall off the wagon, the consequences aren’t as severe. For those like myself, who may have a hereditary predisposition to worry and low moods, the first signs of depression are a wake-up call to be more proactive about living in a natural, focused, vigor-inducing manner. I know that realizing I’m prone to depression has made me much more aggressive in searching out best practices that will keep my natural gloom at bay and keep me from sinking into a profound despair.
Of course, that’s just my opinion. Add it to the expanding stack and choose the narrative perspective that most resonates with you and, more importantly, inspires you to take steps to keep your black hound at bay.
Complete the Series
Depression is a battle I’ve had to fight for a long time. The Depression’s History Male Melancholy Signs and Symptoms Depression and Its Treatment
Depression is a battle I’ve had to fight for a long time. The Depression’s History Male Melancholy Signs and Symptoms Depression and Its Treatment
Further Reading & Resources:
The Depression’s Evolutionary Origins (The Depths) Depression Epidemic in the Modern World: Drugs, Diagnosis, and Despair Undoing Depression: What Therapy Can’t Teach You and What Medication Can’t Give You Cure Your Dark Side’s Positive Side Think Your Way to a Better Life by Rewiring Your Brain