The True Cause Of Depression
About two years ago a patient of mine, Mr. Burndt (not his real name), committed suicide. When his wife, who was also my patient, told me the news at one of her visits, I was shocked. Fully aware that 40% of older patients who are suicidal visit their primary care doctors within one week of killing themselves, I found myself wondering over and over how I’d missed recognizing the severity of his distress. I’d known he’d been suffering from depression but had thought it mild.
But even more shocking than the news of his suicide was the reason his wife gave for it: six months earlier, he’d been involved in a car accident and had inadvertently killed a pedestrian. In the end, he simply couldn’t live with the guilt.
WHAT IS DEPRESSION?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) classifies depression into the following types (there are even more, but these cover the basics):
- Dysthymia. In essence, having a depressed mood on most days for at least two years.
- Major Depressive Disorder. In addition to feeling “down” as in dysthymia, other characteristics may include excessive feelings of guilt and suicidal ideation, as well as various physical symptoms like loss of hunger and fatigue. It can be mild, moderate, or severe.
- Adjustment Disorder with Depressed Mood. This is grief due to a loss of some kind (which itself can be classified as normal or complicated).
- Depression NOS (not otherwise specified). Includes things like premenstrual depression and seasonal depression (SAD).
- Secondary depression. Depression due to an underlying medical disorder like Cushing’s disease or hypothyroidism.
Though not in DSM-IV, some practitioners further classify depression into two broad types:
- Endogenous depression to denote depression that arises without an obvious identifiable cause, thought to reflect some kind of “chemical imbalance” in the brain.
- Exogenous depression which is thought to arise from a specific, identifiable external cause.
Given this confusing and non-parallel classification scheme it’s astonishing doctors don’t become depressed themselves as they try to figure out into which bucket their patient’s depression fits. How can we make sense of all this and, more importantly, understand the real cause of depression in order to augment the effectiveness of currently available therapies?
MIND VERSUS BRAIN
First, we need to recognize the distinction between chemical and external depression is becoming outdated. Many neuroscientists have suggested that the mind arises from, and is actually caused by, the physical brain, meaning chemical and electrical reactions somehow give rise to thoughts and emotions. Evidence in support of this theory can be found in numerous studies that show altering brain chemistry with antidepressant drugs (chemicals) can make depressed people feel better emotionally. The same is true for anxiolytics (like Valium) and their effect on anxiety.
But recently, with the advent of functional MRI scans (fMRI), we now have proof the opposite is equally true, that changes in thinking cause significant, measurable changes in brain chemistry and functioning. In one study, patients suffering from spider phobia underwent fMRI scanning before and after receiving cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at eliminating their fear of spiders. Scans were then compared to normal subjects without spider phobia. Results showed that brain function in patients with spider phobia before receiving cognitive behavioral therapy were abnormal compared to subjects without spider phobia but then changed to match normal brain patterns after cognitive behavioral therapy. This may represent the best evidence to date that changes made at the mind level are able to functionally “rewire” the brain, and that the brain and the mind are more mutually influential than we’d previously thought. It certainly supports the view that brain and mind are in fact only two sides of the same coin, or different ways of viewing the same single thing.
DEPRESSION ALWAYS HAS SOME CAUSE
Where, then, does the true cause of depression lie? In the context of the critically important caveat that clinical depression is almost certainly more than one disease with more than one proximate cause, I would hypothesize that in most cases depression arises at its core from a belief that we’re powerless to solve our problems.
This is clearly true with people who know why they’re depressed: invariably, once they figure out how to solve their particular problem, their depression lifts. But I would also argue this often holds true for people who are depressed for no reason they know as well. Why? Because thoughts can trigger feelings that remain stirred up long after the thoughts themselves have been forgotten. Some studies have suggested people think upwards of 12,000 thoughts per day. How could we ever remember them all? Yet a fleeting thought we might have had this morning about the possibility of losing our job can and often does leave an emotional residue that lasts hours, days, weeks, or even longer. I would argue, therefore, any depression that appears to be “chemical” may in fact be caused by a thought that simply isn’t remembered—a thought about a problem we don’t believe we can solve. (I should note, on the other hand, that many of my psychiatrist friends tell me they have depressed patients who tell them their lives are “just fine” but that they’re depressed anyway. To tell if such people are depressed because of unrecognized cognitive distress, as I just suggested, or because of some non-cognitive abnormality is extremely difficult, if not impossible. If such patients never successfully identify a cognitive distortion as the true cause of their depression does that mean it never existed or they just never found it?)
Further, sometimes what appears to be a “chemical” depression is caused by a thought that isn’t directly or consciously recognized. These thoughts are often about problems that seem so unbearably awful and unsolvable we literally don’t want (and often refuse) to think about them (such as our becoming jobless or the prospect of our own death).
Finally, I believe the commonly accepted idea that some forms of depression like depression NOS and secondary depression (#4 and #5 above) are caused by chemical or hormonal abnormalities may overstate the case. I wonder instead about an alternative explanation, that these forms of depression have a chemical or hormonal influence—reducing our ability to believe we can solve our problems but not entirely eliminating it. At first glance this might not appear to be a significant distinction given how incredibly difficult it is to believe in our ability to solve problems, for example, when experiencing premenstrual syndrome. But knowing intellectually we can win even if we’re having a hard time believing it can help to sustain the most valuable thing depression tends to reduce: hope.
HOW CAN WE HELP OURSELVES?
None of this is by any means to say we can simply decide to believe we can solve a particular problem when no solution is obvious or forthcoming. Changing any belief, whether consciously recognized or not, is one of the hardest things to do. But armed with a clearer understanding of the true cause of depression we can consider the following steps to help ourselves:
- Find a way to raise your life-condition. Your inner life state has more to do with your ability to believe you can solve your problems than anything that may be actually going on in your life. If your thoughts are swirling in despair, take action to break free of them and attain a fresh perspective. Become immersed in a great book that moves you or watch a movie that transports you. Exercise. Go where it’s warm. Meditate. In short, do what you know from experience bounces your thinking to a more optimistic place.
- Identify the problem or problems you don’t think you can solve. It’s amazing how often you don’t know why you’re depressed and how helpful it can be to figure it out. Making a list of everything that’s bothering you—a sort of stream-of-consciousness rant on paper—can be a fantastically helpful exercise. Or if you do know why you’re depressed, recognizing the cause isn’t that you have a problem per se but rather that you have a problem you don’t believe you can solve can be remarkably empowering. Also, sometimes we become depressed not because we have one problem we believe we can’t solve but because we have multiple problems we believe we can’t solve. Handling challenges can be likened to balancing a “plate” of a certain size: if we pile too many problems onto it, not only do we risk having it topple over, we often find ourselves wanting to pitch the whole thing on purpose. When this is the case, allow yourself to only worry about and focus on solving one problem at a time.
- Identify the reason a problem seems unsolvable. As I pointed out in a previous post, Changing Poison Into Medicine, many things erroneously cause us to conclude we’re deadlocked, chief among them our inability to identify a solution to our problem right now.
- Recognize that your thoughts are profoundly influenced by your mood. Once depression has established itself, it takes on an insidious life of it’s own, further diminishing your belief in your ability to solve problems, your ability to plan, and your ability to have hope for the future. In this way the cause of any depression always reinforces itself.
- Remember that your depressed self is not your true self. Whatever life-condition you find yourself in at any one moment always feels like the only life-condition you’ve ever had or will have. But your life-condition can and often does change literally from moment to moment.
- Understand that anti-depressants only treat the symptoms of depression. None of the foregoing has been intended as a denial that anti-depressant medication plays a significant role in the treatment of depression. In the right patient, antidepressants reduce the symptoms of suffering exceptionally well and can be literally life-saving. Research is especially clear that combining antidepressant medication with cognitive therapy is more effective than either alone. But antidepressants can’t make anyone actually happy because happiness isn’t merely the absence of suffering. The best approach, in my view, is to treat the symptoms of depression with antidepressants (or cognitive therapy or even electroconvulsive therapy) when symptoms are severe enough to warrant it while at the same time attempting to address the underlying cause of the depression itself.
I fully recognize that as a means to battle depression—especially a deep, all-consuming depression—these suggestions are inadequate. My point in making them, however, is to emphasize that the single most effective means to resolve a depression is to find a way to tap into our immense power to solve problems.
In retrospect, I wish I’d suggested to Mr. Burndt that he think about his guilt over the death of the pedestrian he caused as a problem to be solved—and more importantly as a problem that could be solved. Perhaps had I also begun him on an anti-depressant medication to stave off what were obviously strong suicidal thoughts, he might have had time to work through his guilt. Perhaps he could have shaken loose from its grip in time to forgive himself, and his depression might have lifted. But I’ll never know. And that’s a problem I have to solve for myself.
**This post provided the genesis of a much longer and more thorough discussion about the causes and treatment of depression, which interested readers can find in my book The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness.