Is depression caused by chemical imbalance?
ALL emotional responses have a chemical consequence. When we laugh, for example, there is a greater amount of chemical endorphins (natural painkillers) released into the blood stream. Endorphins do not cause laughter however, they are a consequence of it.
Until recently, and partly because of drug-company marketing, the widespread belief was that depression was a biological illness. It’s even been called a ‘disease.’
Bear with us if you have completed the Depression Learning Path already, as you will have already read this, but it really is so important.
Depression is 10 times more common in people born since 1945 compared to people born before 1945. So, ten times as many people are becoming depressed now as compared to fifty years ago (and this research takes into account increased reporting and public awareness). Biology doesn't change this fast. Genes don’t alter this rapidly - so this is a clue that clinical depression and its increase are more to do with the way society and lifestyles are changing.
Depression is not an inevitable consequence of adverse life circumstances either, as only a minority of people exposed to difficult situations go on to develop clinical depression.
So what is depression if not a result of chemical imbalances - the physical symptoms are real enough!
Depression is actually a state of high arousal. Depressed people have higher concentrations of stress hormones (cortisol, noradrenaline) than non-depressed people. The apathy and exhaustion seen in depressed people is a consequence of too much arousal, and the way the body and mind respond to this arousal.
The way we respond to situations (with thoughts of hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety, anger, etc) affects the emotions we feel which, in turn, effect the chemicals which are released.
But the emotionally aroused brain and the presence of stress hormones in turn affects how we think and feel - so it is a ‘two way street’. Thoughts and emotions effect chemical composition and chemical composition effects thoughts and emotions.
So, to sum up, beating depression is not about bad things happening to us but rather how we have learned to respond to life events - good or bad.
Thyroid problems, food intolerances and other physical illness can lead to feelings of depression but less than 10% of clinical depression is thought to have a chemical basis. Appropriate psychotherapy has still been shown to be more effective than drug treatment alone in the treatment of chemically based depression, and far more effective in preventing relapse. By far the majority of depressions are learned phenomena, not chemical ones.
To learn more about how arousal affects physiology and depression, take the Depression Learning Path.