People’s thoughts and attitudes explain why some develop depression following stressful life events. The following list provides an overview of various vulnerability factors that put a person at risk for developing depression. There are indications that these distorted beliefs precede the initial onset of depression. Thus, improving faulty thinking may help to prevent depressive mood.
1. Learned helplessness.
This thinking pattern suggests that individuals come to believe that they have no power over events in their own lives. These individuals are passive and believe that they cannot do anything to relieve their suffering.
2. Being stuck in negative thoughts.
Depressed individuals are prone to ruminate on negative thoughts. Unfortunately, this tends to maintain or amplify negative thinking. For example, the thoughts of someone suffering from depression following a bitter divorce might take the form of regret (“I should have been a better spouse”), and anxiety about the future (“How will the kids deal with it?”). The urge to repetitively think about the causes and consequences of the event may prevent depressed people from using effective coping strategies.
3. Feeling depleted.
As Andrew Solomon writes, the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality and resilience. Individuals with depression lack the ability to flexibly shift attention away from negative information. As a result, they become more vulnerable to the intrusion of distracting thoughts. This reduced ability makes it difficult for depressed individuals to redirect their attention away from negative thoughts.
4. Lack of motivation.
Depressed people can feel purposeless and almost any activity/task becomes a challenge. Psychologist Hasler argues that depression reflects a shift in cost-benefit analysis, and consequently in impaired decision-making. Dopamine deficiency in depressed people may specifically increase their valuation costs (e.g., time, effort) along with the decrease in satisfaction from their normal daily activities and interactions. The result: A lack of motivation and action.
5. Biased memory.
Depression is associated with recall of negative events—this happens automatically. The memories of past failures and the images of feared future scenarios further worsen one’s mood. In contrast, recalling positive memories of life events can improve a person’s mood.
Schemas are cognitive structures that shape our information processing. Schemas of people suffering from depression often include themes of loss, separation, failure, worthlessness, or inadequacy. These negative schemas are a hidden force (risk factors) that shape our beliefs (“I’m unlovable”) as well as what we pay attention to and what we remember. With repeated activation (rehearsal), the negative thought patterns evolve into a stronger habitual thought pattern that stressful life events access more easily over time. The awareness of our schemas provides an opportunity to grow.
7. Pursuing unattainable goals.
Depressed individuals may continue pursuing a failing goal (e.g., inability to leave a troubled marriage, or pursuing a dream that they cannot achieve) and dwell on their failure to achieve the goal. People who disengage from seemingly impossible goals are mentally healthier than those who stay entrapped. Giving up frustrating goals creates opportunities.
8. Poor problem-solving ability.
Psychologist Connie Hammen has argued that, in many cases, stressful life events (e.g., loss, humiliation, or entrapment) are dependent on a personal choice. That is, there are things people do that make depression worse through the consequences of their own behavior. For example, a person prone to depression tends to act on impulse when experiencing a difficult situation, further adding to the problem. Or a person with social-skill deficits who is inappropriately critical of others may cause disturbances with relationships. In such cases, depressive individuals are not simply reacting to stressful events, but actively contributing to stressful situations.
One troublesome behavioral response that can make depression worse is self-medication of mood through heavy consumption of drugs and alcohol. This strategy provides relief in the very short run but contributes to one’s depression in the long run. For example, binge eaters have greater rates of depression and anxiety compared to the general population. Addiction and eating disorders may be the tip of an emotional iceberg that will cause trouble in the future if we ignore them.
10. Personality type.
Depression occurs at least in part due to personality styles (e.g., neuroticism). Neurotic traits lead to depression through poor coping with stressors. Highly neurotic people worry about bad things that may or may not happen, and are more vigilant about threats, even those that are distant, hidden, or subtle. Moreover, others often experience neurotic individuals as difficult to deal with. This makes them less desirable be around, leaving them to experience more isolation and rejection.