By Michael Yapko, published on July 1, 2003 - last reviewed on May 25, 2007
I've read that depression is an excuse not to grow up, not to be responsible for your own happiness, that it is self-pity, etc. I've also read and heard how it is a chemical reaction in the brain and that a person can't control it. Which is correct? Am I being selfish and self-centered? Have I created this depression or is it out of my control?
What causes depression? The best answer is many things. The contributing factors vary substantially from one person to the next.
To start with, biology matters—there can be genetic and neurochemical factors that play a role in the onset and course of depression. The misconception many people have, though, is that you have a neurochemical anomaly and then depression results.
In fact, it is a two-way street: Your experience influences your neurochemistry at least as much as your neurochemistry affects your experience. These include your problem-solving capabilities, your coping style (whether you deal with problems directly and proactively or either ruminate or go into avoidance), your decision-making style (many people who are either depressed or are prone to depression make bad decisions that lead to depression and even make their depression worse), your perceptions of control (whether you see yourself as a victim of life experience or as having the power to take charge of your life), the quality of your relationships and relationship skills, and many other such personal factors.
Feeling hopeless and helpless are part of the disorder, and so depressed people are prone to believe there is nothing they can do to help themselves. That is flatly untrue. When people educate themselves and take proactive and deliberate steps to get help, including self-help, the probability of overcoming depression is high.
I'd suggest that you completely ignore the disempowering interpretations people give you about the meaning of your depression. Instead focus on 1) learning what your particular risk factors and vulnerabilities are and 2) then learning the strategies you'll need for skillfully managing your mood.
Even when depression eventually lifts, you will need to manage your mood with self-awareness and skill. It's a life skill everyone needs, not just those prone to depression.
Therapy can be of great help and should feature somewhere in your plans to overcome your depression. You can't effectively treat yourself when you don't know much about what you're up against.
My friend and I were discussing how depression runs in families, and she thinks that means it's genetic and I think that means people learn depressive ways of being. What do you think?
You're both right. Genetics play a mild role in major depression (a bigger role in bipolar disorder). Genetics may serve as a predisposing factor to depression, but the evidence is growing that depression has a great deal to do with the ongoing and repetitive interactions within the family.
Just as an individual has a mood, so does a family. Is the family atmosphere a serious or playful one? Emotionally close or emotionally unexpressive? Supportive or competitive? Tolerant of individual differences or rejecting of them? Problem-solving oriented or avoidant of problems?
Growing up, you have countless interactions with parents and significant others, each of which holds the potential to teach you specific skills or perspectives. If you live with perfectionistic parents, for example, you may grow up with the idea that nothing you do is right or good enough, a belief damaging to all you may attempt to do, whether in school, the job market, or relationships. It can lead to and/or maintain depression.
Interactions within the family shape your view of yourself and the world. The feedback you get in the form of peoples' reactions lets you know what's expected of you, how others see you, what you can express, even how you should manage your own body. Your self-image is largely a product of others' feedback.
Families increase or decrease vulnerability to depression in other ways, too. For example, if parents are not good problem solvers and don't actively teach skills for managing the problems of life, you can't learn effective strategies for living. Much depression today arises when people get overwhelmed by problems they just don't know how to manage.
The values parents teach, whether through word or deed, provide either a solid or shaky foundation for making decisions in life. If you learn to value money over service to others, or competition over cooperation, many choices in your life will be affected, not all of them for the better.
The bottom line is this: Your family plays a big role in your life experience, and family members can't teach you what they don't know. Instead of either passively blaming them or suffering needlessly, you must be proactive in learning your own vulnerabilities and how to manage them skillfully.