Depression is a common mental disorder, affecting an estimated 3.8% (280 million people) worldwide, including 5.0% among adults and 5.7% among adults older than 60 years. Depression is different from the usual mood fluctuations and temporary emotional reactions to everyday challenges in life. Especially when it’s frequent and intense, depression can become a serious condition that impairs a person’s daily life. With that said, things that trigger depression aren’t limited to depressing situations. By identifying what triggers depression, people can recognize and be aware of the signs of depression in themselves and others.
What Are Some Triggers for Depression?
Depression does have several triggers, many of which aren’t considered depressing situations. Many people become depressed even when their lives are going well. For instance, postpartum depression is a form of depression that occurs following childbirth, an event that many would consider a miraculous and celebratory milestone.
However, depression is often triggered by stressful or negative life events, and even a previous depressive episode can reoccur due to situational causes. Nonetheless, there are plenty of sudden depression triggers that are simply unpredictable and can flip a person’s entire life upside down. Below is a guide of things that trigger depression that can help you be aware of and alert to the possible signs of depression in yourself or a loved one.
Grief and the Loss of a Loved One
Also known as bereavement, grief and loss are some of the most common things that can trigger depression. However, diagnosing depression during this period in a person’s life can be tricky because certain symptoms of depression can be confused for normal displays of grief.
Grief and depression are not the same things, and the way one manages grief depends on age, life experience, character, state of mind, the situation, and the level of personal support they have. Grief can also manifest itself in various physical and psychological symptoms, including depressed mood, anxiety, anger, high blood pressure and heart rate, problems sleeping, substance abuse, and more.
Due to the similarity between symptoms of grief and depression, it’s important to speak to a therapist or doctor about your symptoms if you’ve been experiencing grief for prolonged periods. Without help, long-term grief can eventually become prolonged grief disorder, which may give way to depression.
People have an innate desire to receive approval, acceptance, and affirmation from others, so much so that rejection can be a significant trigger for depression. Rejection and exclusion can be major stressors for people who struggle with low self-esteem and self-confidence. Some people also have something called high rejection sensitivity (RS), which can be caused by either their genetics or the culmination of prior life experiences.
Those with a high RS are more sensitive to social cues and tend to easily pick up on any hint of rejection and take it to heart. With perceived repeated failures, the anxiety of one instance of rejection eventually leads to social withdrawal, the ceasing of enjoyable activities, and depression. Even people who do not have a high RS may feel sad or angry after rejection, especially when the rejection comes from a love interest.
On the other hand, depression itself can also contribute to a high RS because low self-esteem and confidence are more common among people with depression, making them more sensitive to rejection. Depression symptoms like depressed mood, lack of energy, and loss of interest in activities can also contribute to any social rejection they may experience.
Stress and Hormones
Stress is also a major trigger of depression because it produces both physical and psychological side effects. Stress causes hormonal changes that contribute to depression, as well as functional impairment in areas of the brain associated with mood like the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. This is evident in women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which is prevalent in 3% to 5% of the general population.
One study of 1,488 women found that women with PMDD were more likely to develop psychiatric disorders, with dysthymia and depression being the most common.1 Stress releases the stress hormone cortisol, which causes physical changes in the brain, and can even change the size of the hippocampus, or the part of the brain that’s known to be smaller in people with depression and anxiety.
Psychological stress, like worrying over responsibilities at work, also activates the immune system, releasing chemicals like cytokines, which are also associated with depression. Hormonal changes and stress might also explain why some women experience postpartum depression.
Illnesses like cancer may also contribute to depression for various reasons. Depression may be caused by illness because:
- The illness itself is tragic, or the diagnosis was traumatic (including cancer, HIV, degenerative diseases like Multiple Sclerosis, and others)
- Symptoms of the illness may cause depression symptoms (such as vitamin B12 deficiency or hypothyroidism)
- The illness may be commonly associated with depression (including Parkinson’s disease and erectile dysfunction)
- The medications used to treat the illness may affect chemical balance and cause depression (including certain heart medications, hormones, and certain antibiotics)
Illness and depression are also often linked because the diagnosis may bring with it the risk of premature death. Illnesses can also physically prevent sufferers from doing certain things, which could make them feel left out. In the case of a chronic or terminal illness, co-occurring depression can magnify the problems the person is facing and even increase their risk of death.
Lack of sleep can also trigger depression, which is not surprising considering that changes in sleep are among the most common symptoms of depression. People with depression either start sleeping too much or sleep too little, including the 75% of people with depression who struggle with insomnia and the 40% of people (approximate) who sleep excessively (hypersomnia).2,3 In fact, sleep problems are one of the major reasons why people seek depression treatment in the first place.
A lack of sleep is a trigger for depression, and people who suffer from insomnia are more likely to develop depression. One study on 1,788 adult twins found that depressive symptoms doubled from 27% in twins who got 7 to 8.9 hours of sleep to 53% in twins who only got 5 hours of sleep per night. Additionally, depression symptoms increased to 49% among twins who reported sleeping 10 hours per night. This study further demonstrates the role of sleep in depression.4
Rumination occurs when a person ruminates or dwells on grief rather than trying to embrace it and deal with it healthily. In people who struggle with rumination, pain and grief become obsessions that take over their lives. People who ruminate on grief get caught up in asking themselves, “Why me?” dwelling in self-pity and exaggerated negativity.
They may even get angry at people who manage to deal with their grief in healthy ways. As a result, it’s not surprising that rumination is a common trigger for depression and can worsen or prolong its symptoms. On the other hand, depression can also make it difficult for people to handle grief and loss properly, which can lead to rumination.
Money or financial problems can also lead to depression. A study that tracked the effects of money on mental health in 35,000 homes in America found that low household income increases the risk of psychiatric disorders like depression. The study also found that a drop in income – due to the loss of a loved one who was the main provider or unemployment – also increases the risk of depression. Financial problems can also contribute to stress, worry, and lack of sleep, all of which we’ve discussed can contribute to depression.
Life changes, even positive ones like going off to college or moving for a more successful job opportunity, can negatively affect a person’s mental health. We tend to be creatures of habit, and change can come with many fears and risks. Oftentimes, going out of our comfort zone can cause stress.
For instance, moving away for a job promotion may involve leaving a familiar and comfortable job and home for ones that are unfamiliar and new. This new job may even be more difficult at first, and the transition may involve leaving loved ones behind and being surrounded by strangers. The overall transition could be stressful, which could give way to a specific type of depression called adjustment disorder.
Substance abuse and mental illness are also closely related, not only because people with depression may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol but also because of the changes these substances can cause in the brain. Drugs and alcohol can be known to change brain function and structure as well as neural communication and chemical stability.
The misuse of prescription and illicit drugs often causes fluctuations in chemicals associated with mood and well-being like dopamine and serotonin. In cases where the person is either withdrawing from these substances or has been using them for long periods, depression can occur. When addiction and depression occur at the same time, it’s referred to as comorbidity or co-occurring disorder.
In addition to knowing what triggers depression and the related signs and symptoms, a major aspect of managing any form of depression is receiving professional care. Considering the high risk of suicide associated with depression, our Massachusetts treatment center recommends that individuals with this disorder seek out mental health treatment.
In addition to levels of care for substance abuse treatment, our Northeast addictions treatment center also offers residential mental health care that addresses disorders like depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and more. Our mental health specialists can help you or a loved one learn how to identify possible depression triggers and manage symptoms healthily.
- NCBI – Reproductive hormone sensitivity and risk for depression across the female life cycle: A continuum of vulnerability?
- John Hopkins Medicine – Depression and Sleep: Understanding the Connection
- NCBI – Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression
The misconception leads to rejection or it’s a misconception that depression leads to rejection? I’m not sure how I am supposed to understand this sentence.