Depression Risk Factors and Protective Factors

Around 14.8 million Americans suffer from depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s the third most common cause of hospitalization for Americans ages 18 to 44 and the leading cause of disability worldwide. Learn about some of the conditions that may put you at greater risk for depression, and what you can do to develop resiliency against it.

Depression Risk Factors

Genetics —The medical community largely believes that your chances of developing depression increase if other family members have had issues with the disorder. While there doesn’t seem to be one “depression gene” or gene mutation that causes depression like with illnesses such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia or Tay-Sachs disease, some studies suggest that a combination of genes can create the perfect storm for depression and mood disorders. Studies on identical twins also support a biological basis for depression, with research showing that if one twin suffers from depression, the odds that the other twin will also have depression are relatively significant, even when growing up in separate environments. Self-Criticism — Being overly critical of yourself can keep you stuck in a cycle of destructive self-talk and fuel poor self-esteem. It can also put you at risk for depression. Researchers from Yale University and Wesleyan University found self-criticism to be a significant predictor of both depression symptoms and poor functioning in relationships and social situations. Similarly, a 2006 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology followed graduate students with a history of depression for 20 months and concluded that people with high levels of self-criticism, feelings of helplessness, and separation and rejection anxiety are particularly prone to depressive episodes. Trauma — A growing body of research supports the link between trauma and depression. People who’ve experienced any type of trauma, whether a powerful one-time event like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, rape, the death of a loved one, or ongoing trauma such as military combat or childhood abuse are at high risk for depression and anxiety. A long-term study initiated by the National Institutes of Health found that childhood physical abuse increased a person’s lifetime risk for depression. Physical and emotional neglect in childhood also increased the risk for depression. The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that over half of women with mental illness experienced physical or sexual abuse in childhood or adulthood. Many studies have shown that depression often coincides with PTSD from combat or being involved in bombings, violence, or natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. Serious Illness — Ongoing illnesses or fatal diagnoses may breed depression. Research shows that people suffering from chronic illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and multiple sclerosis frequently have depressive symptoms. Up to 77% of people with terminal illnesses like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and AIDS also experience major depression. Treating depression in people with chronic and terminal illnesses can prove particularly challenging as sometimes the medications used to help these conditions have side effects that mimic the symptoms of depression.

Depression Protective Factors

Positive Family Relationships — Strained family relationships and emotional abuse or neglect can play a role in children and adolescent’s current or future development of depression. One study found that poor family cohesion was associated with higher levels of depression, stress levels and anxiety in adolescents. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Psychology and Aging showed poor parental support in childhood increased a person’s risk of chronic health conditions and depression in adulthood and into old age. Gratitude — One study found that people who wrote down five things they were thankful for once a week for 10 weeks saw a 25% increase in happiness compared to those who wrote down things that bothered them or neutral events. The gratitude group felt more optimistic about their lives and future and even exercised 1.5 more hours a week than the other participants. Furthermore, merely thinking positive thoughts and imagining positive outcomes has been shown to increase some of the feel-good brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. Proper Self-Care — Healthy self-care practices like eating well, exercising and getting plenty of “shut eye” can help ward off depressive symptoms. Nutrition experts say 60% of your happiness comes from your gut. Eating a combination of proteins, healthy fats and carbohydrates can aid against depression symptoms. Exercising regularly can also help people with mild to moderate depression through the release of endorphins and norepinephrine. Replenishing the body and mind through rest is also important. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Sleep suggests that adolescents who suffer from sleep deprivation are at greater risk for depression. Other research has shown that people who struggle with insomnia have much higher levels of anxiety and depression. Sobriety — Depression can result from alcohol and drug abuse. Alcohol and certain drugs act on the reward system of the brain, often changing the brain’s neurochemistry with continued use. Many drugs significantly increase levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, depleting the natural reserve of these neurotransmitters and making it difficult for the brain to create these chemicals on its own. This is when physical and mental chemical dependency develops. Without a regular flow of drugs and alcohol to the brain, people who’ve developed a dependency experience withdrawal. Depression can be one of these withdrawal symptoms.

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