We all have times when we feel down or deflated.

depressed-older-ladyFor a clinical diagnosis of depression, doctors consider nine specific symptoms. Major depression is diagnosed from persistent low mood and loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities along with at least four of the other symptoms for at least two weeks. (See Is The Rate of Depression Actually Increasing or Not?)

But whether depression is classified as major, moderate or minor, as far as the individual is concerned its all major. Rather like all minor surgery if it is happening to you personally then it is major surgery! (See the 4 minute video I Had A Black Dog).

A helpful way to look at the forms and varieties of  low mood is as a spectrum of causes that may or may not be inter-related to each other.

  1. It can be  a symptom of something else- for example a side effect of a serious illness or a minor illness like the flu.
  2. It can be a reaction to life events like a relationship breakdown, a sudden bereavement or losing a job.
  3. It can also be an illness in its own right when there is a biochemical imbalance in the brain. This is the one that doctors have tended to focus the most on and includes conditions like bipolar affective disorder or manic depression.

In terms of causes, it is important to appreciate that we are holistic beings with a body, mind and spirit aspects that inter-relate with each other.

1. The Physical

The physical has a huge impact on the mind. So, for example, prolonged hunger and tiredness can make cowards and depressives of us all. You can get a small taste of that with the irritability or tension you can feel after a particularly hectic and tense day when you have been over-working or taken on too much. There are also physical conditions like a low functioning thyroid gland or post-viral fatigue syndrome, also known as ME. In women post-natal depression is the most common complication after childbirth affecting up to 10% of mothers.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or a particular form of winter depression as the days get shorter and dark nights longer, is another physical cause. I had to interview almost 100 people with SAD, as it is called, in the mid 1990s for a research project and was struck by how disabling it can be.

2. Personality or Temperament

Personality or temperament also has a specific vulnerability – particularly the person who is highly conscientious and maybe over sensitive to others. In John Bunyan’s classic book Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) there is a character called Mr Tender Conscience who is a watchman of the city. If anyone tries to break in to the city then Mr Tender Conscience runs around saying, ‘Awake! Awake!’ What Satan does is to poison Mr Tender Conscience not to kill him, but to drive him insane so he yells awake, awake when no one is coming in and he goes to sleep when there is an intruder threatening to break in. This brilliantly personifies the problem of an over sensitive conscience, that rather than looking to God’s salvation and grace we become fixated on our brokenness and wretchedness.

3. Sin and Unconfessed Guilt

Then there is sin that is unconfessed, or guilt over sins from the past, that can certainly lead to depression in a person’s life. For more on this see Could Your Lifestyle Be Getting You Down? Part 2.

4. Idolatry

There is also the issue of idolatry in its broadest sense – trying to fill the God shaped holes of our lives with people or things that can never ultimately satisfy. Our hearts can literally become black holes that are suck everything out of us, as they can never be filled.

Tim Keller in his very helpful book Counterfeit Gods goes into this in much more detail when he describes the issue of how the human heart is an idol factory that ultimately disappoints. He says in his book:

“There is a difference between sorrow and despair. Sorrow is pain for which there are sources of consolation. Sorrow comes from losing one good thing among others, so that if you experience a career reversal, you can find comfort in your family to get you through it. Despair, however, is inconsolable, because it comes from losing an ultimate thing. When you lose the ultimate source of your meaning or hope, there are no alternative sources to turn to. It breaks your spirit.”

But on the other hand, that does not mean all depression is due to sin. There are many other spiritual forces at work as well.

5. God sent trials for our sanctification that are ultimately for our good; some have described this as the dark night of the soul. Mother Theresa is an example of a person who from her writings talks of going 10 years without a clear sense of God’s presence.

6. Demonic attacks can also cause oppression. Being plagued by self doubt and extreme heaviness has been an experience of many Christian saints over the centuries who have sought to be obedient to God’s calling on their life. Depressive feelings can certainly be a part of spiritual warfare. In our modern Western world, demonic attacks and possession has often been reserved to the comical with cartoons of a comic character holding a pitchfork in his hand. However, throughout history and across cultures, belief in the presence of powerful negative forces has been consistently present. C.S. Lewis helpfully points out, “there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

7. Loneliness can certainly produce negative feelings and  make depressive thoughts much worse. This is why finding safe people to confide in, is so important.

8. Trigger events from major tragedies to minor setbacks can also be very important. However, the fact that the same trigger event can produce widely different reactions in different people also shows that it is possible to take control of our responses and we do not necessarily have to spiral down into depression. (See The Importance of Right Attitude Part 1 and the 11 minute video at How Do I Cope With Stress in My Life? Part 4)

9. And finally, just to show how complicated this all is, it can be a consequence of any combination of the above or just a total mystery!

What thoughts, questions and comments do these possible causes raise for you? Please share that below.