What Causes Depression and Anxiety?

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

What causes depression and anxiety? Many notions have seeped into our collective understanding about how we come to be depressed or anxious. The most common and deceptively simple idea is that these problems result from a chemical imbalance in the brain. Big Pharma promotes this idea so that we might flock to their products to gain relief from our misery, which we often do.

More sensibly for me, the current and promising state of our understanding of the development of depression and anxiety identifies the chronic experience of powerlessness, defeat and entrapment as a prime culprit.

Lots of evidence shows that animals respond physiologically and behaviourally in ways that look a lot like stress, depression and anxiety particularly when social standing is lost. This response is understood to be an adaptive way of dealing with being an underling. A subordinate monkey or wolf is in real danger of death if it signals any challenge to its dominant counterpart. Evolved ways of unplugging from being a threat to a bigger baboon are life-saving. The evidence is that social mammals have evolved wired-in defeat systems.

But when powerlessness becomes a constant in life, these defeat systems get jammed on (hello stress system!), actually causing emotional and physical illness.

How we human animals may come to feel powerless follows from many familiar and persisting external and internal conditions.

Intractable problems at your job, chronic pain and health problems, relationship and financial burdens, bullying and harassment, and so many other conditions can collapse hope.

Also, our consumer culture breathes life into defeat through all of the many unrelenting messages that imply that we aren’t rich enough, successful enough or good-enough looking – we can’t get no satisfaction! These chronic reminders are all around us, fuelling our wanting brain, and poke deeper insecurities about how we “should” be.

Internally, we may be very caught up in grim habitual ways of seeing and thinking about ourselves. Punishing messages and abuse during childhood and later traumatic events can unconsciously script our internal self-narrative in adulthood. Unresolved early abusive relationships make it more likely that we’ll feel and behave with similar powerlessness in our dealings in the adult world. It’s a subtle quality of mind, but a very powerful one.

Feeling and thinking chronically that we’re unworthy or inadequate are internal conditions that feel uncontrollable, unremitting and inescapable. Perpetually feeling trapped and defeated is a fundamental way in which depression and anxiety arise. And bad coping just keeps us stuck in additional ways and compounds our hopelessness.

It then follows that seeing your life as it actually and presently is can be incredibly liberating, and dissolves the conditions that support emotional problems. Wanting and cherishing what you already have and distinguishing between needs and truly empty wants turns media buy-in to something sadly funny instead of controlling. Seeing our actual situation at work and at home, instead of seeing the view we get stuck in, can reveal empowering options and alternatives.

Coming to terms with past abuse and loss reveals those old self-views to be unfortunate relics that are without present validity.

Strengthening our ability to be mindful enables a clear look at our life just as it is, a look that includes those parts of our life and mind that create the illusion of entrapment and defeat. It’s no wonder that mindfulness is being found to be a powerful approach to relieve anxiety and depression.

Mental health is a tough undertaking. We feel a huge inhibition to talk openly about these aspects of life. The shame we hold leads to a hushed privacy, a deep reluctance to face our life and mind and to explore them with the interest and tenacity and delight that they deserve and require.