There are a variety of different causes of depression, but basically, they fall into two different categories — situational or biochemical, often referred to as clinical.
It’s very important to differentiate the cause because the course of action will be different according to what category it falls under.
Unfortunately, our society including psychologists, counselors, and other mental health providers, are heavily influenced by the pharmaceutical industry and have been conditioned to believe that the answer to alleviating depression is found in prescription drugs. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As both a mental health professional and someone who has experienced situational and biochemical (clinical) depression personally, I can tell you that in either case, prescription drugs are not the solution.
Our society is conditioned by the pharmaceutical industry, mental health providers, medical society, etc., to medicate all feelings rather than learning how to process them or look for underlying causes. Every time you feel sad, down, melancholy, shy, anxious, etc. you are encouraged to pop a pill. Our mental health providers, society, health care practitioners, etc. encourage addiction and suppression of feelings.
Regardless of whether the causes of depression are situational or biochemical, medicating them only perpetuates the problem in the long run.
Situational Causes of Depression
In situational depression, some type of situation has occurred that is the root of the depression. In these cases, depression did not exist before this situation. This type of depression is a normal response to grief. It should not be medicated and suppressed. Grieving is supposed to occur when you experience a deep loss.
Any situation in life that causes loss or grief is likely to result in situational depression. This is normal.
Here are some common types of situational depression:
- Death of a loved one
- Loss of a job
- Ending of a relationship
- Significant life changes like a child beginning grade school, high school, or college
- A child leaving home
- Developing a chronic health condition
- Loss of abilities or characteristics as we age
- Loss of a home
- Natural disaster
- Transitions like mid-life or menopause
- Changes that are forced upon you like relocating
In situational depression, you should allow yourself to feel the complete depth of your sadness, grief, loss, and anger. Cry, mourn, scream, and yell, if you feel the need. Own the feelings, embrace them, fully experience them.
Talk to a counselor, friends, and family. Punch your pillow, jump up and down, throw rocks, write about it, exercise, join a support group. Nurture yourself, rest, relax, take time to lie around and feel lousy.
Venting is essential for situational depression. Let it all out. In time as you move through the phases of adjustment to loss, the depression will dissipate.
The key with situational depression is to work through the feelings and feelings are worked through by being acknowledged, felt fully, expressed, and released, not medicated.
Learning to have acceptance for feelings of sadness, loss, pain, depression, and grief as a natural part of life and to cope with them instead of medicating them is the healthy response we should be taught.
Situational depression may result in feelings or thoughts of suicide because the situation is unbearable. This too is a normal response to deep loss or grief. Working through these feelings and thoughts is the key to recovery, not medication. But, you should have a mental health provider to lean on and keep you safe during this time.
There is also a difference between “feeling” suicidal and “being” suicidal. If one is supported through the process of working out their suicidal feelings they are much less likely to move into the “being” suicidal phase.
In situational depression, neurotransmitters in the brain are indeed impacted by the loss and grief, however, they will regain balance when the situation has passed and the feelings have been dealt with effectively. If medication is used, then situational depression could turn into clinical depression, because the medications will cause disruption to brain chemistry.
Biochemical depression, also known as clinical depression, has a biochemical cause. It occurs for no identifiable reason. The individual usually feels deeply depressed as well as negativity, dread, gloom, and doom. It is often accompanied by high levels of fear and anxiety and occurs on a daily basis for no apparent reason. It may be mild, moderate, or severe. With the most severe leading to feelings of suicide that have no basis.
The difference between feeling suicidal with a biochemical cause and a situational cause is that in the biochemical there isn’t anything specific in the life that can be attributed to this feeling. With biochemical depression, no amount of talking results in relief. Nothing makes them feel better.
The cause of biochemical depression is a disruption, depletion, or imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that are responsible for regulating our moods, thoughts, behaviors, weight, sleep, pain perception and response, and cognitive and mental performance.
The primary neurotransmitters involved in depression include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, and acetylcholine. People with depression typically have lower than normal levels of serotonin, dopamine, or endorphins. If anxiety is involved as well, they may have too much norepinephrine, acetylcholine, glutamate, or histamine and not enough serotonin, GABA, and/or dopamine.
Dopamine gives us pleasurable feelings. It makes us feel good, confident, euphoric, and relaxed and instills a heightened sense of overall well-being. It improves mood, alertness, and libido. Serotonin plays a major role in mood, sleep, appetite, pain, and regulating body temperature. It also contributes to good feelings of well-being and is often thought of as our natural anti-depressant. Norepinephrine is an excitatory neurotransmitter. It keeps you alert, helps you handle stress, and is often thought of as our natural stimulant. Endorphins are the body’s built-in natural pain reliever, they provide relief from emotional and physical pain when called for and instill feelings of well-being and a sense of empowerment. GABA is our primary calming and relaxing neurotransmitter and acetylcholine regulates cognitive functions, mood, attention, arousal, sleep, intelligence, and movement.
In order to feel happy, relaxed, balanced, and normal, and maintain peace of mind, all these brain chemicals need to be functioning properly. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Sometimes there are not enough of them or too many of them. There may be a problem in production or function or in the receptors themselves. When these neurotransmitters are not produced or functioning adequately, then disorders in mood like depression develop.
You often see commercials on TV talking about a chemical imbalance that causes depression, the chemicals they are referring to are neurotransmitters. The prescription drugs they are suggesting you take manipulate your neurotransmitters. However, these drugs actually deplete and disrupt your neurotransmitters even further and ensure that depression will never go away and that you become dependent upon drugs.
Even the pharmaceutical companies’ own commercials tell us that two out of three people taking anti-depressants still experience symptoms of depression. This is because balance needs to be restored to the neurotransmitters through diet, nutrition, and changes in lifestyle, not medication.
Imbalanced, disrupted, deficient, or malfunctioning neurotransmitters are caused by a variety of reasons. Some of the most common include the following:
- Childhood abuse
- Chronic stress
- Refined carbohydrates
- Excessive consumption of complex carbohydrates
- Environmental toxins
- Food sensitivities or allergies
- Nutritional deficiencies or Imbalances
- Candida overgrowth
- Hormone imbalance
- Adrenal fatigue
- Heavy metal toxicity
- SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth)
Each of the issues above results in either a disruption, altering, or depletion of neurotransmitters, which then results in depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.
Sometimes there can be an overlapping between situational and biochemical depression such as in the case of child abuse, menopause, and excessive stress. These situations can cause situational depression and biochemical depression.
Additionally, situational depression can result in biochemical depression if it goes on for an extended amount of time.
To alleviate biochemical (clinical) depression, all substances and activities that cause disruption to or imbalance of the neurotransmitters must be stopped and each of the contributing factors listed above need to be addressed.
For example, in my own life, I overcame biochemical depression by getting counseling for childhood abuse issues, removing alcohol, drugs, wheat, sugar, caffeine, refined foods, and high-carb foods from my diet, addressing my hypothyroidism, eating a diet that kept my hypoglycemia and candida overgrowth under control, removing environmental toxins from my living space, and eating organic.
Another very common natural approach to relieving depression is the use of targeted amino acid therapy. Amino acids are the building blocks for neurotransmitters and many people are deficient in amino acids. By replacing the amino acids, neurotransmitters may be brought back into balance. Many practitioners prescribe tryptophan or 5-HTP to increase serotonin, tyrosine to increase norepinephrine and dopamine, and/or DPA or DLPA to increase endorphins. However, amino acid therapy should be done under the supervision of a health care provider with expertise in neurotransmitter balancing. Please read my page on neurotransmitters for more in-depth information on this topic.
A condition called pyroluria can also be at the root of depression. Pyroluria is a blood disorder that results in a deficiency of vitamin B6 and zinc and a problem in producing serotonin. It can be diagnosed with a simple blood test and managed by supplementing the diet with zinc, vitamin B6, and other nutrients. This condition should be treated by a knowledgeable health care provider as it is important to take the correct dose. Too little can be ineffective and too much can actually be harmful.
You can find a comprehensive recovery approach to depression in my book, What Your Psychologist Hasn’t Told You About Anxiety and Depression, and overcome cravings for addictive substances that typically accompany these conditions as well.
The causes of depression are usually many, not just one or two. They usually occur in a cluster. It takes time and commitment to explore all avenues and identify your triggers. Be sure to read my balancing neurotransmitters page, for more information. It’s also important to keep in mind that recovery from biochemical or clinical depression is ongoing; if you return to a diet or lifestyle that includes sugar, caffeine, environmental toxins, excessive stress, etc., then depression will return. Taking amino acids or other supplements without addressing these issues will not result in long-term recovery. You must make permanent changes in your diet and lifestyle.