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Lesson 3.3 Causes of Depression- Psychological factors

Meet Lin. She is in her 30’s and living in Beijing, China. Lin is successful, smart and likeable. She has many of the things she always wanted: a great job, a loving husband, a nice apartment and a car. But recently Lin has been suffering from depression. She has been feeling low, hopeless and has very little energy. Even daily tasks seem like a huge challenge. She thinks, why do I feel this way when I am so lucky? Why do I have these feelings and not my friends?

You may think that depression only happens to those who are unfortunate, mentally weak, or traumatized. The truth is, it can happen to anyone (according to our CandleX’s mental health peer support group review 2016, many who seem to have it all can also be suffering from depression). Many of us have been in a similar situation to Lin where we question why we experience depression even when things seem to be going well and we know the intense guilt that goes along with this question. If life events and family history (genes) don’t fully explain who is at risk of depression, what are the other factors that can contribute?

In today’s class, we are going to tap into another factor: psychological factor.

We are going to present to you two opposite words: vulnerability and resilience. Some people have a higher vulnerability to depression than others. This is not their fault or due to personal weakness. People with high vulnerability have a higher risk of developing depression, especially when they experience stressful life events that can trigger depression such as, the end of a relationship, losing their job or losing a loved one (Go to Lesson 3.1 for environmental factors). On the opposite end of the spectrum some people have high resilience. Resilience is the term psychologists use for the ability to adapt to stressful life events and ‘bounce back’. Having higher resilience reduces the risk of depression and other mental health problems.

Our vulnerability/resilience to depression is linked to our genes, social support and environment but it is also linked to psychological factors: how we think and respond to stress. There are many psychological factors that affect resilience. In this lesson we will be looking at 4 factors from the smallest level, our individual thoughts, to more holistic factors such as self-esteem.

  • Thinking patterns

  • Personal vulnerabilities

  • Self esteem

  • Coping style

All of these factors are important because factors at the higher levels can affect factors at the lower levels and the other way around. We will also explain practical steps that you can take to help strengthen your psychological resilience.

Thought Patterns

Let’s start by looking at the smallest level we can: our individual thoughts. Can the thoughts we have make us more vulnerable or resilient to depression?

The short answer is yes. According to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) principles what we think has a big influence on our emotions and our emotions effect how we behave. It’s not just the external events that happen to us that make us feel a certain way – it’s the thoughts we have about them.

David Burns (1981) developed a list of common “thinking errors” or “cognitive distortions” still widely used in CBT today. These thinking errors increase our vulnerability to mental health problems and negative emotion.

Any of these sounds familiar to you?

Mathew Whalley, 2008,

CBT is an evidence based treatment which helps to prevent unhelpful thinking through several techniques including straight talking- becoming aware of our own thinking errors and using sets of questions to see if they are really true or not. Using CBT techniques to combat thinking errors can help reduce symptoms of depression and build resilience.

If you are interested in learning more about thinking patterns and CBT try Moodgym, a free CBT skills development program produced by the National Institute for Mental Health Research (NIMHR) at the Australian National University. The program includes exercises and quizzes to identify your own thought patterns and is totally free. Just follow the link below and create an account.

Note this program is not designed to treat clinical levels of depression and should not be used as a replacement for seeking advice from a health professional.

Areas of Personal Vulnerability

Moodgym looks at areas of personal vulnerability that can feed into or result from our thought patterns. These areas are bigger than just our individual thoughts and tap into the needs and beliefs we have.