What Causes Depression: Part Two (reposted from Jan. 4, 2013)

(If you are seeing this thread for the first time, I’d like to suggest you go back to the first part on this post. You can find it here)

Last week we talked a little bit about a possible genetic connection; we also discussed the melancholy personality that is more prone to depression than the other three main personality types.  However, those two things are by no means a complete picture of the causes of depression.  Today, I think I want to talk about trauma and how it can play into depression. I don’t think I’ll be able to cover the whole picture, so hang on.  We may have to finish this one next week.

Let me remind you, if I may, of my own personal journey.  I’ve been taking Effexor for about six weeks now, and my husband tells me there’s no comparison, that I’m getting back to my “normal” self now, whatever that means 🙂  Because he had his own depression journey 16 or more years ago, he’s very sympathetic and supportive.  I’m blessed.  Not all spouses give that kind of support.

So where it started with me is hard to pinpoint, but I suspect the seeds were sown some years ago. I deal with trauma every day that I work in my counseling office.  The trauma can range from the loss of a child through miscarriage, illness, or suicide to divorce or death of a spouse; from a job loss to sexual and or physical abuse at the hands of a stranger or a spouse.  Someone, years ago, made a table of “stress numbers.”  One side was bad stress, like divorce. The other side was “good stress,” like a wedding.  The stress number of each was 100.  Isn’t that interesting?  I do remember, after my own wedding and honeymoon, going through a period of listlessness, complete physical exhaustion.  I had graduated from college one week, and was married the next.  Probably foolish, looking back, but I wasn’t willing to wait one minute longer than I had to.  Was my reaction depression?  I don’t know.  I just remember needing to sleep a lot, and having very little initiative and physical energy.  Maybe I had mono.  That’s something else that has surfaced since I was 50, almost 16 years ago.  My doctor told me that the mono test clearly indicated I’d had it before. Huh.

All right, back to trauma.  You may say, “But I’ve never had any real trauma in my life.”  That may be true, by your own definition.  But there is “Big T” trauma, like loss of a child or spouse, severe physical illness or accident injury, or financial loss.  Then there is “little t” trauma, like the stress of going to college for post-graduate work, or even the daily care of an ill child or parent.

Military veterans are often diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If they have seen their buddies die horribly, or been severely wounded or, worse, captured and imprisoned, their trauma is severe.  Part of PTSD  is severe depression, often incapacitating enough that it totally changes their lives.

The lesser traumas tend to be cumulative. A part of my family moves far away; I deal daily with the painful problems of my clients; relatives die in auto accidents; my mother lingers painfully for nearly two years before she takes her last breath.  Life is just hard, and  I’m no longer young. The depression creeps up subtly; it doesn’t develop into full-blown pathology overnight.

The accumulation of trauma has affected my entire system, including my brain, which is the source of the “feel good” chemicals we all need in order to maintain a “normal” state of mind.(Since I wrote this four years ago, studies are showing clearly that about 85% of serotonin is actually created in the gut, not the brain)   I use the word normal carefully, because my normal may not be your normal.  That’s an important thought to keep in mind.

So, could I have prevented this at some point?  Maybe.  Maybe if I’d come home from my mother’s funeral and NOT jumped right back into work.  Maybe if I’d grieved more openly when my nephew, and then later my brother, both died within 19 months of each other, instead of keeping it buttoned down tight.  Maybe if I’d taken a vacation somewhere in that two-year period. Maybe if I were better at compartmentalizing. Maybe. . . .but I’ll never know.

One thing I do know is that my faith in God has never wavered, even through another deeply personal loss that I cannot discuss here.  I honestly do not know how people survive such losses without God to sustain them; without His Word to comfort, encourage, and ground them.  I am so thankful that even when I would forget to “take my burdens to the Lord and leave them there,” He always found a way to remind me to do so.

Trauma wears us out; physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually drains us of our energy and will to go on. When the physical body becomes depleted, ALL of it is affected, including the brain. The brain is the source of serotonin, along with several other mood-stabilizing chemicals. Both the brain and the body need time to heal. When we don’t take that time, we can suffer depression.

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