Depression can be a difficult thing to pin down. Some sadness or low mood may be part of the human condition – which is why it has been difficult to identify genes for depression, for example. Some depressive tendencies may run in families, ‘genetic loading’, or it may be linked to early losses or difficult life experiences. Hormonal factors can be at work – about ten or fifteen percent of new mothers may be affected by post-natal depression, for example. Mood can even be affected by the weather – e.g. Seasonal Affective Disorder, where lack of sunlight may disrupt serotonin levels.
Fortunately, contemporary psychological therapies have been shown to help. These emphasise how thoughts, mood and behaviours are always in relationship to each other. Low mood might cause us to have negative thoughts and withdraw, which in turn might make us feel more depressed, a sort of vicious circle. Certain patterns of thinking are probably also at work – catastrophizing (problems are experienced as overwhelming), mental filtering (only seeing difficulties and not our capabilities), or emotional reasoning (I feel it, so it must be true). Other thought processes like rumination (endlessly chewing over things) may be the mind’s attempts to understand something, but ultimately it may end up trapping us with our problems.
Therapy involves getting behind some of these maladaptive patterns and trying to understand our situation – and how we might move forward – in a more constructive way. It may involve identifying some negative automatic thinking, or some hidden core beliefs about ourselves. The process is not always easy, but the gains can be transformative.