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Psychological Roots of Depression

Stressful life events and Depression

It is not difficult to imagine that experiencing a major stressor can lead a person to become depressed.   In particular, stressful life events that involve a serious loss (including the death of a loved one, a divorce, an illness or the loss of a job), a humiliation or a defeat can all lead to a Depressive Episode [ref, ref].   Even positive events, such as getting married, having a child, or gaining a lot of money, or neutral events such as changing jobs or moving homes, can be significant stressors [ref].

There is some evidence that different types of stressful events may lead to different types of Depressive Episodes that involve different sets of symptoms.  Depressive Episodes following a separation from a loved one through death or a romantic break-up tend to by marked by high levels of sadness, loss of pleasure, appetite loss and guilt; personal failures or long-term stress over things like work, finances or legal problems tend to lead to Depressions with fatigue and oversleeping but with less sadness, loss of pleasure or appetite loss; Depressive Episodes that seem unrelated to any life stressors tend to involve fatigue, increased appetite and thoughts of self-harm, but less sadness or trouble concentrating [ref].

Personality traits (Neuroticism) and Depression

Still, the question remains as to why different people can have very different reactions when faced with similar stressors, with some becoming depressed and others not. People's reactions to stressful events are based on how they perceive and interpret these events.   Experiencing a particular event as representing a loss, a humiliation or a defeat is determined in large part by a person's personality, past experiences, their hopes and expectations for themselves, and their general attitude and approach to life.   

People who are prone to react negatively to stressors, and to experience anxiety, worry, guilt and sadness even towards events that seem rather minor, typify a personality trait called Neuroticism.   This trait puts a person at risk for developing Depression [ref].   Neuroticism is linked, at least in part, to genetic factors [ref], but there are no doubt certain life experiences, especially when occurring at a young age, which can shape a person's personality in such a way that they develop strong traits of Neuroticism. People with these personality traits have a greater chance of developing a Depressive Episode following a stressful life event [ref].

Early childhood experiences (attachment, trauma) and Depression

The early years of life are a crucial time when individuals develop their sense of basic trust and security in the world and in themselves. Children who grow up with insecure forms of attachment to their parents or caregivers tend to carry this insecurity within them as they grow older, and tend to be at risk for developing Depression later on in life [ref].  This is especially true regarding children who experience the loss of a parent, either because of death or separation [ref].  Adults with Depressive Disorders tend to recall their childhoods as having been times when they felt unsupported and rejected by their parents [ref]

Experiencing trauma and abuse as a child, especially sexual abuse, is another example of life events that can have a major impact on a person's psychological development.  Individuals who as children experienced physical or sexual abuse, or neglect, are at a very high risk for having Depressive Disorders as adults [ref]. There is evidence that these traumatic events also have long lasting effects on the central nervous system, including the corticosteroid stress response [ref], in effect priming the person to react more severely to stressful events in the future.  

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Gene-Environment Interactions