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What Causes Depression?

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The origins of mental illness have been debated for centuries. In modern times the prevailing views have largely fallen on either side of two opposing theories: Nature versus Nurture.

The nature viewpoint states that heredity-genetics alone determines whether one will develop illness or pathology. Hence, there is a 'built-in', predetermined vulnerability to stress and other negative events which will create greater likelihood of the development of the disorder.

The nurture viewpoint reflects the tabula rasa model, which presumes we are born essentially as "blank slates," and that detrimental early life experiences will be the causative factor of illness later on. These may include exposure to trauma, abuse or neglect in the first weeks, months or years of life; usually involving a parent or primary caretaker.

More recently, it has been widely accepted in psychology circles that it is probably a combination of both: genetic vulnerability and profound early life experiences.

We now are able to look at mental illness biologically, thanks to medical imaging technology, which enables scientists to "see" clinical depression in the brain. They have also been able to trace how early life experiences can change certain brain structures, through the overactivation of certain chemicals and hormones, in response to stress, for example. This information has changed how depression is viewed and treated.

Effective Strategies — The newest wave of antidepressant medications helps correct the chemical imbalance associated with this disorder. Certain forms of focused psychotherapy treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, have also been shown to reduce this imbalance.

Lifestyle habits are also key in helping manage this disorder, especially at the biological level; such as proper and adequate sleep, regular exercise; and daily exposure to outdoor light. Our primitive brains have evolved in this environment over millions of years on earth, and so it is no wonder that our well-being continues to depend on them.

  • Regular sleep cycles — Going to bed and waking up at approximately the same times each day will help get to all stages of sleep, especially slow wave (deep) sleep which is important for mood regulation. Drugs and alcohol should be avoided, including caffeine, which can interfere with deep sleep.
  • Regular exercise — Exercise increases endorphin release which elevates mood, increases pain tolerance, and potentiates better sleep. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce depression, even with no other treatments.
  • Exposure to light — Twenty minutes a day outside, preferably in the morning, will help reset the "body clock" in preparation for the days activities. In some climates, this may be difficult. A specially designed "light box" (l0,000 lumins) can be an effective substitute.

There is growing evidence that other kinds of experiences may also affect the biology of depression — the value of close interpersonal relationships; finding meaning/purpose in life; through the healthy, direct expression of emotions; learning and practicing effective coping skills; setting and achieving goals- however small; and opening up stored feelings, during therapy sessions or during the process of writing feelings in a journal.

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Disclaimer: The information about educational or therapeutic approaches is provided for educational purposes only. Certain treatments may or may not be covered through your benefit plan. Coverage typically depends on your plan specifications and relevant guidelines maintained in relation to your benefit plan.

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