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Causes of Depression

by Ron Kurtus (updated 21 November 2022)

Depression is usually an unhappy feeling of being down and listless. It includes major depression, dysthymia and bipolar disorder. Depression is result of a change in the chemistry of the brain. This can be caused from an inherited tendency, psychological factors such as low self-esteem, and environmental factors such as a serious loss. Often it is a combination of factors that trigger an episode.

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Brain chemistry

The various chemicals in the brain control emotions and feelings.

Limbic system

The part of the brain called the limbic system regulates activities such as emotions, physical drives, and the stress response. The hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus are parts of the limbic system.

Within the brain, there are special chemicals called neurotransmitters that carry out many very important functions. It has been found that there is an association between depression and the function of three primary neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Endocrine system

Another area determining the causes of depression is the endocrine system, which is made up of small glands within the body that create hormones and release them into the blood. Problems with hormone levels may be intertwined with the changes in brain chemistry that are seen in clinical depression.

Adrenal glands

Many who are clinically depressed have an excess of a hormone in their blood called cortisol, which is secreted by the adrenal glands, which are located near the kidneys. The adrenal glands assist us in our reactions to stressful events.

Triggering imbalance

Genetic factors, psychological causes, and environmental factors can trigger chemical imbalances in the brain, thus causing depression.


In some families, major depression also seems to occur generation after generation. The condition appears to be genetic, but it is also possible that certain behavior traits are picked up and passed on to the next generation.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder or manic depression also seems to run in families. Studies of families in which members of each generation develop bipolar disorder found that those with the illness have a somewhat different genetic makeup than those who do not get ill.

However, the reverse is not true. Not everybody with the genetic makeup that causes vulnerability to bipolar disorder will have the illness.

Psychological causes

The main psychological causes of depression are low self-esteem and the mental reaction to a medical problem or change.

Low self-esteem

People who have low self-esteem are prone to depression. These are people who consistently view themselves and the world with pessimism. They are also readily overwhelmed by stress.

It is not clear whether low self-esteem is a psychological predisposition or is an early form of the illness.

Physical changes

Physical changes in the body can be accompanied by mental changes as well. Medical illnesses such as stroke, a heart attack, cancer, Parkinson's disease, and hormonal disorders can cause depressive illness, making the sick person apathetic and unwilling to care for his or her physical needs, thus prolonging the recovery period.

Whether inherited or not, major depressive disorder is often associated with changes in brain structures or brain function.

Environmental factors

Events happening around the person may trigger a bout of depression.

Things that happen within a person’s environment, such as a serious loss, difficult relationship, financial problem, or any stressful change in life patterns can trigger a depressive episode.

Stresses at home, work, or school seem to initiate depression in some people. Sometimes even welcome stresses, such as preparing for a wedding or vacation, can cause depression.

Combination of factors

Very often, a combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors is involved in the onset of a depressive disorder. Once a person has been depressed, only mild stresses can precipitate later episodes of the illness.

In conclusion

An imbalance in brain chemistry causes depression. Problems in the limbic system, endocrine system or adrenal glands can result in an imbalance. Some people may inherit a tendency for depression. Attitudes of low self-esteem and pessimism can cause a chemical imbalance and result in a person becoming depressed. Losses and stress can also cause the malady. Often depression is caused by a combination of factors.

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Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


Biological Causes of Depression - from All About Depression

Causes of Depression - from Healthy Place Community

Mental Health Resources


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