What Causes Depression?

Although a challenging life event, such as the death of a loved one or financial hardship, can trigger depressive episodes, the causes of depression are complex and overlapping. There are two main categories of risks that can contribute to depression—those that you can't change, and those that you can.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors
These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know whether you fall into any of these higher-risk categories.
  • Your family history. Depression appears to have a genetic component. You are more likely to experience depression if one of your parents also suffered from depression. If both parents had depression, your risk of developing it is twice as high.
  • Your gender. Women are twice as likely to experience depression as men. Experts believe this is due to fluctuating hormone levels that women experience throughout life.
  • Your age. While you may think that the risk of developing depression increases with age, that's not the always the case. In fact, studies show that the elderly are more likely to be happy and content with their lives than their younger counterparts. Depression can occur at any age (even in children), but it is most common in people between the ages of 24 and 44.
  • Your health history. Chronic health conditions such as disability, heart disease, hypothyroidism, stroke, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), and Parkinson’s disease can lead to depression. A history of depression also increases your risk for future episodes.
  • Psychosocial factors. Depression is more common in people who have a history of trauma, abuse (sexual, physical or emotional), neglect, alcoholism, drug addiction, and insufficient family structure.
  • Environmental factors. Chronic depression occurs more often in people who live in areas afflicted with war, natural disasters, and poverty. Seasonal depression is most common in high latitudes with extreme seasonal changes.
  • Life changes. The loss of a loved one, conflicts with others, losing or starting a new job, the end of a relationship, retirement, moving to a new city and more—many life events can trigger depressive episodes.
While you can’t change things like family history or your environment, you can control certain factors related to your lifestyle—the choices you make each day about what to eat and how to care for yourself. These are areas of your life where you can take proactive steps to help prevent and treat depression and enhance your overall health.

Controllable Risk Factors
  • Your diet. Food can affect your mood. A diet too low in iron, healthy carbohydrates, and calories can cause symptoms of depression. Eating plenty of calories, whole grain carbohydrates, Omega-3 fatty acids, and iron-rich foods can improve symptoms. Learn how to eat well when dealing with depression.
  • Your activity level. Inactive people tend to have higher stress levels, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and mood swings. Regular exercise produces “feel good” chemicals in the brain, enhancing the benefits of antidepressant medications, and producing similar results. Learn more about exercising to relieve depression.
  • Your alcohol & drug use. For many, depression and substance abuse are closely connected. Alcohol and illicit drugs can interact with medications, worsen depression and its symptoms, and prevent recovery. If you think you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, seek help.
  • Your sleeping patterns. Changes in your sleeping habits and the quality of your sleep can be closely related to your mood. A lack of sleep can cause many symptoms similar to those of depression. Get tips for better shut-eye.
  • Your medications. Several types of medications can cause depression. If you think your medication may be contributing to your symptoms, talk to your doctor about finding an alternative medication for your condition that doesn't have this negative side effect.
  • Your stress levels. People with uncontrolled, chronic stress are more prone to developing depression. Taking time to relax and relieve stress through exercise, meditation, yoga or other techniques can help.
While lifestyle changes alone cannot treat depression, talk with your health care provider if you think the factors above may be affecting your mood, thoughts and behavior. Every small lifestyle change you can make, in conjunction with the treatment plan laid out by your doctor, can improve your overall health and help enhance the effectiveness of medical interventions.
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Member Comments

Did NOT agree with your question:

True or False: Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Answer: False

I did not deal with depression until I dealt with PTSD from combat in the military. I now have an imbalance in my brain that causes my brain to not produce normal levels of serotonin. I must take a medicine named seroquel to bring the serotonin levels back to normal.

So the answer to this posted question is inaccurate.
Glad you put chronic health issues in here. I have had MS for 28 years and am not able to get around well. I miss exercising that always did. Report
I worked on a crisis line for many years. Depression is no joke. If you're struggling, please find someone you trust to talk to. Report
What do you do when a loved one suffers from depression (has since elementary school and is now 30) but refuses to take medication? He has been suicidal but just doesn't think that the medications will work. I worry about him constantly! Report
I am a 65 year old woman who has suffered from anxiety, with depression off and on in my life and some of the periods were way longer than others. I tried to take medication, Lexipro, about 6 years ago with disastrous effects. I ended up in the ER with serotonin syndrome, blood pressure that was in stroke range and completely out of it. Doctors had to give me a downer, a benzodiazepine, to counter act my reaction to the SSRI. Needless to say, I cannot take them. In an effort to help myself, I started doing massive research (spent a couple years reading everything I could my hands on) about anxiety, how it manifests, how we actually contribute to its continuation, etc, although I never wanted to admit to myself that I may be doing something to prolong it, There are totally conflicting studies on the topics of depression and anxiety depending on what you read. Because the meds were not an option for me, I sought help from someone who actually schooled me on the physiology of the condition from the brain aspect. I learned that anxiety is not a mental illness but a long term habitual thought process that becomes ingrained in the amygdala in our brains. He described it like learning to ride a bike. After you learn, it becomes second nature to do so and the same goes with anxiety. It has literally nothing to do with any imbalance in the chemicals in the brain at all. Once a severe anxiety episode takes hold, over time it can become second nature to unintentionally park ourselves in that state of thinking, not realizing that we are doing it. I learned so many ways to deal with anxiety by facing it head on and not running from it. It was a huge relief to know that I did not have a mental illness, I was not diseased and I could help myself. I also learned that 90% of the body's serotonin resides in the gut, not the brain. What we eat has a tremendous impact on inflammation in the body and our mental health. I've learned to eat cleaner and feel so much better. This is not to say I will never have another episode of anxiety. It w... Report
Several years ago I radically changed my diet. I did it to help someone else in my household, but the end result was that I disappeared decades of living with chronic depression. What I didn't realize at the time was that I began eating a diet that was a very low inflammatory diet. It's been kind of magical... Report
Some if not all of those controllable factors aren’t always that controllable - sleep, diet and alcohol disturbance are even classed as symptoms. Report
In my growing up family depression was never allowed--you just kept working. Sometimes it worked but many times not. I find just getting outside to help a lot. Report
Thank you for an excellent article on depression. I have had it my whole life and found the article to be very informative. If people want to go deeper the internet is open to all! Report
I didn't see any mention of short day effects on some people. Depression can also occur after severe trauma. It may be linked with Fibromyalgia in some way since they are both treated with meds from the same group. Not everyone can tolerate meds from that group. Report
You can get all causes of depression: https://thewellne
appy/depression Report
Depression has always been considered a bad word in my family. My Father's mother, my grandmother had been hospitalized due to her depression throughout the majority of his child hood.
Years ago, I was taking Prozac to a period of depression that I had been going through. I felt like it helped at the time, but the cause was never determined. Report
I have Clinical Depression which is inherited. I do take medication but there are times when it just isn't enough and food is what I head for. All the sweet desserts, chocolate and also anything crunchy. As much as I know intellectually, emotions take over and I hate when that happens. I do Zumba 1hr 3X a week plus strength training and that really does help emotionally. You can actually feel the endorphins working plus everybody is sweating and panting with you so your not alone. Another big help is as you're exercising with the instructor there is great big mirror in front of you so you can't help but see what you really truly look like. Report
Thank you Marty and Zonkeroo - there is a big difference between "being depressed" and "having depression." Contrary to what the quiz says, everyone feels depressed at some point, and it's normal. When students study real hard and get a grade much lower than expected, it can alter the mood for a sustained amount of time, and that is depression, a lowered state of mood/being. When an adult gets a demotion, totals a car, goes through serious illness, or has financial concerns it can be classified as being depressed.

Having depression is different. Think back to the commercials you see on TV. Does it last more than two weeks? Does your life come to a halt because of this serious altered mood? Do you feel like a completely different version of yourself? These are signs that the lowered mood state is more serious and needs assistance.

To Jenn, if you're still reading this, there are breaking studies in the past few years that suggest the effects of PTSD can lessen to such a degree that they no longer impact the person's daily life. The difference between the PTSD of Vietnam and that of the Gulf Wars is the kind of care that's available today. Medication to treat the immediate effects makes space for talk-therapy (counseling) to be effective. While you used to need to be on medications permanently, they are finding that it may no longer be the case. However, if you do go on medications (and they do a wonderful job when the right one is found), do not go off them alone - do it with the advice and oversight of a trained medical professional.

Remember, if you need it, it's okay. No one would tell a diabetic to get it together and just start making insulin. No one would tell a cancer patient to fight it harder so those cells go away. They rely on a medical team to help them manage and work with what's going on. You can manage depression with help and live a very full life.

Depression is a beast and it totally sucks. I've been battling depression since 2003 (actively) and have not really found any relief. I switch from one medication to the next hoping for some relief. Exercise does help *SOME* but not enough that I find myself happy again. Diet does help *some* but not enough that I can kick my meds to the curb. Prior to 2007 it was clinical depression and anxiety. Post 2007, it is clinical depression, anxiety, ADHD and PTSD brought on by the call to duty while battling PPD. I believe my depression is mostly environmental, but could be biological - hard telling since I'm the only one in my family being treated for it.

I have tried and tried to change my attitude, reduce my stress, eat better, exercise more, etc, etc, etc, but none of those things have provided the relief I seek. The Army doc told me that I'd be on medication 'til the day I die. I refuse to accept that and will continue to seek a coping mechanism that works for me without using drugs. We'll see how it goes... Report


About The Author

Nicole Nichols
Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.