Overcoming Genetically-Based Depression

A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy/Cognitive Behavior Therapy approach.

Posted Jul 11, 2020

A reader asks: "If a present emotional response is caused by our genetic predisposition, how do we proceed to work with it going forward?"

Reply: Most of what we do, say, think, or feel has a genetic basis. We are able to learn a language, for example, due to brain structures predisposing us for this ability. The difference between humans and apes lies largely in our biological proclivities, our thinking about our thinking, and different experiences. A chimp can't sing jingle bells, appreciate Shakespeare, plan a vacation to Bermuda, or fly there. Our brains set the parameters for our humanity. Consequently, we draw on both genetic and past influences when we think, emote, and act. 

Similarly, if you're depressed or anxious your brain is predisposed for these emotions (although chimps at times appear depressed, indicating they have a similar biological proclivity on a primitive level).

Albert Ellis's Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) posits a variety of influences on our thinking, emoting, and acting. Our genetic predispositions consist of a major one.

Influence or cause?

First, distinguish between an influence and a cause. A genetic predisposition, your critical parents, and family upbringing are influences, not proximate causes. The cause involves your thinking, what you're telling yourself, immediately before you experience your emotion. This holds for both minor and severe depressions, including "clinical depression."

Our emotions are generated by our thinking, not by other factors which may serve as powerful influences, yet are not immediate causes. You may have had depressed parents, an abusive upbringing, or current tragedy in your life. Yet change your thinking and then your emotions will change.

Suppose you're depressed much of the time. This indicates you probably have a genetic tendency to feel depressed and that you're depressed about having this tendency. Your major problem is called "secondary disturbance"—you're depressed about feeling depressed. Your secondary depression magnifies your primary, or initial, depression. (N.B. "Secondary" refers to what occurs second chronologically, not that it's second in importance.) 

Here's an example of one practice, among many, for uprooting your secondary depression. In my book, Three Minute Therapy, I call this structure the "Three Minute Exercise." It's adapted from Albert Ellis's "Rational Self-Help Form." 

A. Activating event: I'm genetically predisposed for depression and have been depressed all my life.

B. Irrational Belief: Because I prefer not to be saddled with this tendency for depression, therefore I absolutely must not be. I can't be happy. 

C. Undesirable emotional Consequence: Even more depressed (secondary depression).

D. Disputing or questioning your irrational belief: What is the evidence I absolutely must not feel depressed or have a proclivity to be, although I passionately desire not to feel this way? 

E. Effective new philosophy: There's no evidence I must not feel depressed or feel any particular way I wish to feel. It's quite unpleasant to feel depressed but hardly the end of my world. I don't like feeling depressed but I can stand it as I am doing so now. Although I'm standing it poorly I will survive, as I have in the past. I've felt depressed for a long time which may continue, but no reason exists why I should not. It's not my genetic proclivity for depression, but rather it's my intolerance of it that makes me even more depressed while unnecessarily exacerbating my genetic tendency. With much practice, I can significantly reduce or abolish my irrational must-thinking, unconditionally accept this handicap, and dramatically improve my life. 

F. New Feeling: Significantly less depressed or only concerned. Determined to immerse myself in a productive, enjoyable, satisfying life.


To defeat your genetically-based depression, it's essential to write and think through this and similar REBT cognitive exercises conscientiously on a regular basis, as you would with learning a language. Practice makes near-perfect. Question, challenge, and contradict your musts, shoulds, and have tos wherever you find them. You'll get on the road to a happy and productive life. It has worked for me, it can work for you! 

"You largely constructed your depression. It wasn't given to you. Therefore, you can deconstruct it." —Albert Ellis


Berry, M., & Edelstein, M. R. (2009). Stage Fright. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press.

Edelstein, M. R., & Steele, D. R. (2019). Three Minute Therapy. San Francisco, CA: Gallatin House.

Ellis, A. (1988). How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything--Yes, Anything! Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.