We all experience feelings of sadness – or even despair – at least once in our lifetime. However, when those feelings become unbearable, they might start to take a toll on our lives. One of the most common mental illnesses is depression. 

According to a WHO report published in 2020, more than 264 million people worldwide deal with this disorder. This mental health disorder isn’t about mild mood fluctuations or short-lived emotional responses to things that happen in our everyday lives. Rather, depression can cause people to struggle and not feel their best when at work, home, or with friends and family. In extreme cases, depression can lead a person to take their own life. It can affect how we feel, our thoughts, our sleep schedule, and also basic tasks such as eating.

What causes depression?

Depression is a complex mental illness that must be studied thoroughly. Although it’s often reduced to the mere result of a chemical imbalance, we must consider that, because there are different types of depression, there are also different sources that can trigger – or contribute to – depression. 

Depression affects your overall health, but we can group the different causes of depression in four groups, according to the different dimensions that are involved:

Risk Factors

There are some risk factors that can be used to predict possible future depressive disorders in children. In particular, a study investigated the correlation between cumulative childhood adversity (CA) and depression in young adults. Results showed that children and teenagers with a history of multiple CAs are more likely to experience depression in the future.

Physical

Brain

There are areas of the brain that help regulate your mood. According to Harvard Health Publishing, depression isn’t caused by a chemical imbalance; rather, nerve cell connections, growth, and functions have a large impact on it. Depression, apart from being related to impairments in attention, working memory, visual and verbal memory, and executive function, is also linked to a smaller hippocampus. In fact, a study conducted on 100 women – 60 with depression disorders, 40 without – showed that the group with depression had a reduction in the right hippocampal volume when compared to the second group.

Family history

Studies have shown that there’s a correlation between depression and your family’s medical history. There is a correlation between a family’s medical history and early development of depressive symptoms  – meaning that the risk of developing  depression is higher if close relatives also have  it.

Mental

Stress

Although it’s fairly normal to feel stressed in our everyday life, not everyone reacts in the same way. Some people may be affected worse by the same thing than others. For this reason, stress plays an important role in depression. According to Harvard Health Publishing, stress triggers a chain of chemical reactions in the body: in particular, it secretes corticotropin-releasing hormones. High levels of this hormone have been found in people who have high levels of depression, meaning that stress plays an important role in depression. 

Substance Use

There’s a strong link between depression and alcohol use. People with depression may see alcohol as a form of self-medication. It’s been shown that alcohol consumption can increase one’s risk of developing depression. 

Environmental

Environment

The environment that we live in plays a vital role when it comes to mental health. In particular, a non-functioning house, lack of green areas, noise, and air pollution are related to depression.

Social

Loneliness

One third of adults aged 45 or above feel lonely, a feeling that may increase the older people get. In fact, almost a quarter of all  people over the age of 65 are socially isolated. Studies have shown that loneliness can be associated with depression. In particular, a 12-year-long study conducted in England showed that higher loneliness scores were associated with higher depression levels at the twelve-year follow-up in adults aged 50 years and older.

 

Types of depression

Depression can present itself in different forms and shapes. There are, however, some more common kinds of depression.

Persistent depressive disorder 

This type of depression, also called dysthymia, is characterized by a depressed state of mind that lasts for at least two years. It leads the person to have periods of major depression along with periods of less severe depression.

Postpartum depression 

Some women can experience extreme feelings of sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion after giving birth. It isn’t the same as the baby blues – those feelings of mild depression and anxiety that usually stop within two weeks.

Women can also experience prenatal depression, feelings of depression during pregnancy. It’s been shown that the number of women who experience this mental illness is increasing with time. In fact, a cohort study conducted on two generations of women showed that 17% of women in the 1990s experienced prenatal depression, but the number had increased to 25% by the early 2010s.

Seasonal affective disorder

This type of depression occurs only during the winter months, mainly due to the lack of natural sunlight; usually, the feelings improve during the summer months, when the days are getting longer. However, this mental illness typically comes back every year, and is often accompanied by social withdrawal, increased sleep, and weight gain.

 

Preventing depression

As we’ve seen, depression encompasses a wide spectrum of mental health disorders. It’s a complex topic and can have major impacts on our lives. Therefore, prevention is imperative. Although depression can be triggered by a mixture of different factors, there are some things that we can do to prevent it or acknowledge it before it becomes unbearable.

Physical Activity

Exercising has been shown to have a positive impact on your health and your wellbeing. More specifically, exercising twice or more a week has been proven to be the best way to prevent depression.

Mental Health Programs

A study conducted on adolescents investigated the effects of a sport-based mental health literacy program, which asked the participants about their awareness and intentions to provide and seek professional help if needed. Results showed that, at the end of the program, the participants were more likely to recognize signs of depression as well as provide help to a friend who may be struggling from a mental health problem. This shows that raising awareness amongst young people can have a major impact on your life, as well as other’s lives, and can potentially save them from developing major depression.

Gamified online CBT

A 2017 study investigated the success of  gamified online cognitive behavioural therapy in preventing the possibility of secondary school students, who were about to take their final exams, from developing depression after the exam. Results showed that prevention intervention before a stressful event helped reduce potential stress levels and development of depression.

Forest therapy 

Being in contact with nature can have several positive effects on your health. A 2021 review investigated the effects of engaging in forest-based activities on health. Results showed participating in forest-based activities  is more helpful in preventing depression than doing the same activities in an urban area. However, the effects of forest therapy seem to be more short-term than long-term. Nonetheless, it can be a great non-conventional way to prevent and treat depression in adults.

 

Coping with depression

Depression can be a severe mental illness and must be treated accordingly. If the symptoms are too much, the best thing is to talk to a therapist. However, there are some effective depression coping strategies that could help you in dealing with depression.

Food

We’ve all heard that eating a healthy and balanced diet can have major benefits on our life. When it comes to depression, eating the right food can boost and protect  our mental health.

A 2018 study investigated the effects of a Mediterranean diet together with the intake of fish oil. Results showed that this type of diet can help improve mental health in people who have depression.

Digital Mental Health Interventions

The Internet is a great tool that you could use to improve your mental health by learning ways to cope with depression. A recent study highlighted the benefits of web-based programs used alongside therapy.

People who took part in the 12-week web-based program in addition to attending in-person therapy sessions showed an improvement of depressive symptoms and no negative side effects.

A similar study conducted on two groups of people displayed the effectiveness of ICT support in coping with depression. The first group was assigned to ICT support (automated emails, phone conversations, feedback from experts), while the second one was assigned to both ICT support and human support (short weekly support calls without clinical content). 

Health Apps

Although smartphones are criticized as a cause or contributor of mental health issues, smartphones can be very helpful if used correctly.  A 2018 study investigated the effects of three smartphone apps on mental health and depression.

The three apps had different features: one included cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT); one tracked the mood; and a CBT strategy app to help you in finding better ways to cope with depression.

The participants were divided into three groups, and results showed that each group’s mental health benefitted from the program.

Meditation

The effects of meditative movements can be beneficial for MDD, major depressive disorder. In particular, one study showed that meditative movements – Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong – can be great tools that can help you deal with depression. Yoga can also be useful in coping with depression, particularly when practiced over a longer period of time.

As we’ve seen, depression is a wide and complex mental health problem. At first glance, coping with depression could seem unbearable, but its effects can be reduced significantly over time. There’s no need to be ashamed of it. Instead, the best thing is finding the courage to address mental health issues and talk to a specialist when needed.