Turn tables on depression

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Q. I have been feeling really down lately and I think I might be depressed. Is this normal? Doesn't everybody feel down once in a while? How do I know if I am depressed? What is depression? If I am depressed is there anything I can do about it?

A. Most people do feel down once in a while. The difference between feeling a bit down and depression is the degree of severity and the duration of the feeling. If you feel down and can't seem to pull yourself up again, then you might be struggling with depression. Depression can affect your life on a number of different levels: physical, behavioral, cognitive, sexual, relationship, spiritual, lifestyle, and emotional aspects of life may be negatively impacted by depression. Sometimes depression is associated with other problems such as anxiety, addictions, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder to name a few. The good thing about depression is that it is possible to turn the tables on depression, to regain control of your life.

The most current thinking about the causes of depression is that it is a biopsychosocial problem; that is to say that depression can be linked to biological, psychological and social factors.

Biological factors might be genetics, chemical imbalance due to health issues or side effects of various medications. Some evidence suggests that the role of genetics is overestimated as no gene for depression has been identified. It is thought then, that depression may be learned in families rather than genetically transmitted.

Psychological factors refer to both thought processes in general and the specific thoughts a person thinks or rather, how and what we think. It is possible to identify patterns of thinking that cause problems and patterns of thinking that tend to buffer people from depression. This is exciting because we have choices about what we think and we know that it is possible to change the way we think. Depression is sometimes associated with stressful life experiences such as death, illness and divorce. However, it isn't so much the event that causes depression, but the way we think about and respond to it.

From studies of depression over time and across cultures, we see that there is a social component. People are more depressed in modern times when the pace of life is faster and in cultures where the emphasis is more on the individual than on the society as a whole. This tells us that things like deteriorating relationships, social isolation, geographic mobility, and exhausting paces of life combine to create a world rife with depression. It seems that the recent rapid changes in our Western society affect people's abilities to cope with the daily stresses of life.

It is important to know the causes of depression so that we can learn about effective treatments. It is also important to ask the question given all the problems and stresses in life, "Why isn't everyone depressed?" Why do some people have the ability to bounce back from life's problems, while others spend weeks, or months, or years suffering? Are there a set of skills for bouncing back that can be learned? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding YES! You can learn to change some of the thought processes that support depression and to change the behaviors that sustain it. You can also learn some new skills that make it difficult for depression to take hold.

Medications are available for the treatment of the biological factors of depression and you could discuss treatment options with your physician. While medications can help you to feel better, they might not solve all the problems of depression because no amount of medication can alter your coping style, change your thought processes and behavior patterns, teach you problem-solving skills and skills to combat depression, or help to build a support network. There are a few great books to help overcome depression. I recommend Breaking the Patterns of Depression by Michael Yapko.