Top Ten Causes of Depression

Depression is a mood disorder that takes a toll on almost every aspect of our lives. Learn the top 10 factors that can cause depression.

Do you feel sad all the time? Do you lack interest? Or maybe you are just dealing with an overall feeling of being down in the dumps. If so, then you are likely suffering from a degree of depression.

No one is above feeling this way; no matter how much our culture likes to throw it under the rug. At one point or another, I’d say most of us will have to deal with depression on some level.

But what is it that causes us to fall into this pattern of thinking? In order to explain that, it is best to first describe depression in more detail.

What is Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder that takes a toll on almost every aspect of our lives. The symptoms that result from it affect how we think, feel, and act. When depression takes hold of an individual, it can be incredibly difficult to break the restraint.

Once this negative mood overcomes us, it begins to feed on itself. One negative thought leads to a worsened mood, which then leads to an even more negative thought and the cycle continues. For this reason, depression is one of the most dangerous mood disorders to deal with.

In the beginning, it’s easy to chalk it all up to being in a bad mood. But once you stay in that state long enough, it becomes a perpetual way of being. Pulling us further and further into the darkness.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes depression as diagnosable when symptoms are persistent for two weeks. Though depression is often referred to by different names, such as bipolar depression, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder, or clinical depression, at the core it’s always the same.

Different names are given for the circumstances in which the depression developed. However, the symptoms of what an individual is dealing with remain constant no matter the depression type.

The National Institute of Mental Health points to quite a few symptoms that are experienced when dealing with depression, though not every person will have each and every symptom.

Symptoms of Depression:

  • Constant feelings of sadness, anxiety, or emptiness.
  • Feeling hopeless.
  • General pessimism about life.
  • Easily irritated.
  • Feeling guilty.
  • Feelings of worthlessness and helplessness.
  • Loss of interest in certain activities.
  • Lack of energy and an increase in fatigue.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Weight changes (rapid weight gain or weight loss).
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping.
  • Lack of pleasure in life.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide/suicide attempts.

As you can see, there are many symptoms of depression. There’s no telling how many you may experience, but just notice if any of these can be used to describe you lately.

Sometimes we excuse our poor moods as a result of something external. “Once this happens, I’ll be in a better mood.” But the thing is, we shouldn’t have to wait until something outside of us happens in order to feel good.

Depression can have many different causes, none any less severe than the other. Just because one person dealt with something similar to you, and they handled it well, doesn’t mean you will. We all have different perspectives on life, so there is no telling how one situation may affect one person versus the other.

Please do not feel sheepish or silly about admitting to being depressed. Rather than being a sign of weakness as is often believed, it is an incredibly courageous act to own up to this disorder. No improvement can be made without such an admission.

While the causes may be intricately different for us all, there are general patterns and circumstances that can be pointed to as a potential trigger for depression. In the rest of this article, we will discuss the top ten causes of depression.

“Please do not feel sheepish or silly about admitting to being depressed. Rather than being a sign of weakness as is often believed, it is an incredibly courageous act to own up to this disorder. No improvement can be made without such an admission.”

Top Ten Causes of Depression

Depression is a major mood disorder that impacts people around the world. According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people are affected.

When there is such a large number of individuals dealing with a condition, the causes will come in many different varieties. In the list I have compiled, there are bound to be factors of depression that are left out.

Due to the complexity of the disorder, covering every single cause is a tall order. With the research I have conducted, along with my own experience, here is my best description of the top ten causes of depression.

1. Brain Chemistry Imbalance

I am putting this cause at the beginning because it has the most controversy surrounding it. An imbalance of neurotransmitters, which help with mood regulation, is often to blame for feelings of depression.

There are three distinct neurotransmitters that are to blame, according to Nancy Schimelpfening in her article on including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.

The reason neurotransmitters are pointed to as a cause of depression is due to the communication that these chemical substances facilitate. See, they work to regulate our mood by signaling to different areas of the brain. When there is either too much or too little of such chemicals, depressive symptoms are thought to occur.

Since there is an imbalance in the brain, popular medications work to monitor these chemicals. One such class of drugs is known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI).

I mentioned an imbalance of chemicals in the brain carries a lot of controversy around being a cause for depression because some research suggests that it is merely a by-product of a truer cause.

Harvard Health Publishing points to many other triggering factors that may lead to a chemical imbalance, or work in tandem with one another to result in depression. The chemical does play a part, the article says, but it isn’t as simple as one chemical being out of balance.

While there may be a lot of questions as to whether or not a brain chemical imbalance is to blame for depression, we do know that medications work to elevate mood. By doing so, an individual can find themselves in a healthy place to work on pinpointing and correcting other areas that may be resulting in their depression.

2. Chronic Illness

There is a direct link between our minds and bodies. We can improve the health of our bodies simply through thought. The flipside to this is our bodies can have the same impact on our minds.

If we keep our bodies in a healthy condition, there is a greater chance that our mood will benefit. However, dealing with a chronic illness can have the opposite effect, causing us to fall into a depressive way of thinking.

Suffering from chronic disease results in pain, both physically and mentally. There is the discomfort of having to live each day dealing with your body constantly hurting. Keeping a positive mindset is often difficult in such a situation and depression can take hold of you.

Also, chronic illnesses sometimes bring along the threat of impending death. This topic in itself can cause an individual to begin to feel depressed. When this possibility becomes much more real, as a result of a diagnosed illness, it can be easy to become filled with feelings of depression.

3. Sleep Disorder

Disruption of normal sleep patterns can play a part in depression. It can be interesting to think of it as a cause since so many people view it as an effect. One of the first warning signs that an individual may be dealing with depression is oversleeping or difficulty falling asleep.

Simultaneously, sleep issues can cause further depression, according to Rob Newsom on What we see is something that occurs a lot with depression, a negative cycle.

Sleep problems can lead to further feelings of depression, which then lead to further troubles sleeping. This is a complex relationship, one that can be difficult to find the initial trigger for. But it is well known that there is a direct link between depression and sleep.

“Sleep problems can lead to further feelings of depression, which then lead to further troubles sleeping. This is a complex relationship, one that can be difficult to find the initial trigger for. But it is well known that there is a direct link between depression and sleep.”

4. Genetics

To me, genetics is one of the most interesting causes or contributing factors for depression. It doesn’t seem to fit the mold for a hereditary disease, but genes do play a large part in whether or not someone may develop depression.

Now, I would like to say that a common way of thinking we often fall into when it comes to something being hereditary is that there is no way to stop it. Almost as if we tend to use it as an excuse.

For depression, our genetic makeup is a factor in the susceptibility we have for developing the disorder. Stanford University points out that about 40-50% of the cause is genetic. What this does not mean is that we are helpless against it.

We may have the predisposition to developing depression, or a depressive way of thinking, but we still are in complete control of overcoming it and getting better.

Just view your family history of depression as a reason for you to better equip your mind to be prepared for overcoming it. Do not use it as an excuse to allow depression to control you.

5. Poor Nutrition

You wouldn’t be so quick to consider poor nutrition as a factor in depression. Though, if you think about it, the correlation begins to make sense.

Food is the fuel for our bodies and minds. Just as you would expect poor fuel being put into your car would have a negative effect, poor nutrition similarly alters the performance of an individual.

A healthy diet has incredible health benefits for just about every aspect of our lives. Eating properly works to prevent physical diseases, and the same holds true for mental disorders.

In an article written on Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. Tello discusses how important nutrition is to our mental health. There is even a new field of medicine now called nutritional psychiatry, which deals with the effects eating has on the mind.

When it comes to what we should ingest if we want to decrease the risk of depression, a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy, antioxidants, and low levels of animal meat were suggested.

I’m not trying to advocate for one diet over the other. All I want you to understand is, what we consume on a daily basis has a major impact on how we feel. You want to find the proper diet for yourself, one that makes you both look and feel your best.

6. Lack of Purpose

When we feel like there is a purpose in our lives, each day seems to have substance. You wake up and know what direction you’re going in.

Having a purpose doesn’t have to be some grand idea like is often believed. All we need is some sort of meaning, whether that be on a large scale or just for the day.

When there is a lack of purpose in our lives, depression tends to follow. A lack of meaning makes us feel lost. As if we are drifting through each day, aimlessly in search of something to give us direction.

Purpose can come in many different forms. Some people find it in their family or work. Others may discover meaning in pursuing a goal or passion. Whatever the backing for your purpose, the fact doesn’t change that having a purpose is a major contributor to happiness. A lack of one can result in depression.

7. Trauma

There are many different forms of trauma we can face in life. But no matter the cause, the psychological toll it can have on an individual is significant.

According to, a traumatic event is defined as an experience that puts a person or someone close to them at risk of harm. Interestingly, it can be hard to tell what a traumatic event for one person will be versus another.

Each of us will respond to situations differently, based on the state of our mental health and past experiences. It can be easy to brush off something as not being traumatic for someone if you believe it is no big deal.

We must all take care of how we, as well as others, respond to traumatic events. The sadness, anger, and guilt derived from such an experience can result in depression if it persists.

“We must all take care of how we, as well as others, respond to traumatic events. The sadness, anger, and guilt derived from such an experience can result in depression if it persists.”

8. Failure

We will all fail at something or another in our lifetimes. The severity of the failure in our own eyes plays a major part in whether we go on to develop depression.

When a setback presents itself in our life we have two choices, learn from it or allow it to debilitate us. Viewing failure as a learning experience can prove beneficial for us on the way to success.

If we do not see a failure in such a light, it can be easy to become depressed and overwhelmed with negative thoughts, especially if the failure was one of many you have faced.

Often what follows are thoughts of unworthiness, helplessness, and that we will never succeed. That type of all or nothing thinking is very dangerous. Allow it to live on in your mind for too long and depression is sure to follow.

9. Poor Regulation of Thoughts

Internal dialogue, or self-talk, is the way we speak to ourselves on a daily basis. This serves as the foundation for our confidence and self-worth.

Our self-talk can either be negative or positive. If you are a confident and happy person, then chances are, your internal dialogue will mirror that. The flip side of this is speaking to ourselves negatively.

Imagine if you had someone constantly telling you, “you’re not good enough,” “you suck,” “you’re such a failure.” Don’t you think after a while, you’ll start to believe them? Well, if you have negative self-talk you are that very person.

It’s not enough to recognize our poor thought patterns, we must become proficient at regulating them. If such an ability is lacking, negative thinking will continue to be the operating voice in your head.

As a result of not being able to change our thought patterns, we can become entrenched in depression.

10. Inability to Handle Stress

Just as with failure, stress is something we will all face in some form or another, in a variety of levels of severity. How we handle such stress has an impact on whether or not we will develop depression.

The World Health Organization says that individuals who have gone through difficult life events are more likely to develop depression. As with other factors, this can lead to a cycle of depression causing more stress, worsening the person’s depression.

Since it is known that dealing with stressful situations already puts us at an increased risk of depression, how we handle the stress matters greatly. I’m sure you know of people who are better at handling difficult situations than others. Maybe you are such a person?

I am also sure you’ve come across those people who can make a mountain out of a molehill. At the sign of the tiniest bit of stress they lose it.

When we possess the capability to handle stress in a proper manner, the chances that we will suffer from depression drop. However, if we cannot manage the stress, we are opening ourselves up to an even higher probability of developing depression.

Final Thoughts

Depression impacts every area of our lives. When we are on the search for peak performance, in whatever we do, depression can prove to be a huge hurdle. This has to do with the incredible toll it takes on the psyche of the individual affected.

Also, the reason depression must be understood and taken into major consideration is that many of the causes listed above are going to be met on the way to our goals.

The first two that really stick out are failure and stress. I challenge you to find someone who achieved success in their field without having to face even a minor failure. Or someone who made it to their goal without the tiniest bit of stress. Both are unavoidable on the path towards success.

But there are other factors that we must all face as well. It can be easy for our self-talk to turn sour as soon as something doesn’t go our way. If you are an athlete, chronic pain can easily begin to wear on your mind. I know it did with me, and I never suffered a serious injury. I dealt with tendonitis and that led to many frustrating and potentially depressive thoughts.

The bottom line is, we never know what factors may play into our developing depression. It’s not something that should be taken lightly. Understand that we are all susceptible to this disorder, but likewise, we are all capable of rising above it.

Are you currently dealing with depression, or have in the past? What have you noticed as the leading contributors? I would love to hear, so please leave a comment below.

I hope this article was helpful in describing some of the major causes of depression. As always, if you have any questions about depression or any other performance psychology topic, please reach out to me.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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