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Theories of Depression


What is Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder which affects over half the population of the world. The symptoms of this disorder include extended periods of sadness and despair, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, struggling to concentrate and remember easily, withdrawing from social activities, fatigue or lethargy, difficulty in making decisions, change in appetite, and/or sleeping patterns, and considering/attempting suicide.

The people who get diagnosed with depression report that they need lost interest in everything in life, a symbol mentioned as anhedonia. Even at times when they try to do something enjoyable, they may feel no emotion. Few people with depression also lose their appetite, while the others might find themselves eating more, or perhaps even binge eating.

Some people with depression want to sleep all day, while others find it difficult to sleep and may experience early morning waking, in which they awaken at 3 or 4 A.M. every morning and cannot go back to sleep. The disorder ranges from mild to moderate, or severe.

The theories or causes for depression have been debated among theorists for decades. The most common ones are explained below.
Theories of Depression:

  1. Biological Theory

For the longest time, the view that depression may arise from disruptions within the delicate balance of neurotransmitter substances that regulate and mediate the activity of the brain’s nerve cells has received attention. Depression has been scientifically proven to be connected with problems or imbalances in the brain. 

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that help neurons (or nerve cells) communicate with each other. A lack of, or not an optimum amount of the neurotransmitters -serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine -which are the ‘happy chemicals’, are known to be a cause of depressive disorders in individuals.

Other newer research also suggests that dopamine dysfunction (especially reduced dopaminergic activity) plays a big role in a minimum of some sorts of depression. Because the neurotransmitter dopamine is so prominently involved within the experience of delight and reward, such findings are kept with the prominence of anhedonia, the lack to experience pleasure, which is such a crucial symptom of depression.

These specific neurotransmitters in the brain are known to be involved in regulating behavioral activities, stress, emotional expressions, and  the vegetative functions (involving appetite, sleep, and arousal)—all of which are disturbed in depression.

Studies on families have proven that mood disorders are approximately 2 to 3 times higher among blood relatives of persons with clinically diagnosed depression than it’s in the population at large. First degree relatives i.e parents and siblings, share 50% of their DNA. Thus, mental disorders are thought to have a genetic basis, meaning they can be transmitted from one generation to the next.

More importantly, however, twin studies, which may provide far more conclusive evidence of genetic influences on a disorder, also suggest a moderate genetic contribution to depression. Taken together, the results from family and twin studies make a strong case for a moderate genetic contribution to the causal patterns of depression

Moreover, females are usually at a higher risk of developing depression, than males. A study was conducted to observe differences in genes in both males and females. After DNA testing, it was concluded that females had a variation in the serotonin receptor and transporter gene, which made them more susceptible to the disorder (Oruc, 1997).

     2. Cognitive Theory

Cognition refers to the mental processes that we can’t see, such as decision making, memorising, or problem solving. The cognitive causes for depression suggest that an individual develops depression due to the underlying process of incorrect information processing. This means that you are not able to grasp information properly, or your brain is processing it in a way that is not accurate. This is known as cognitive distortion.

This occurs due to schemas. Schemas are units of knowledge that we collect about the world, by going through life experiences. Negative, or unfavourable events that happen to us, create a negative bias towards future events too. Which means, if we experience a negative event, we assume that all future events will be negative too. These preconceived notions make us susceptible to negative thinking, and put us at risk for depression.

Mostly, the stressful life events that are involved in symptoms of depression, usually concern the loss of a loved one, threats to important relationships or to one’s career, or economic or health issues. For example, incidence of death or divorce are strongly associated with development of depression.

Moreover, people with depressive symptoms who have been through a stressful life event tend to show more severe depressive symptoms, than those who have not. This connection between stressful life events and depression is stronger in people who are having their first onset than in those undergoing episodes.

Cognitive processes that often lead to depression form a triad. They usually include 3 ways of thinking: 

  1. Negative views about the world 

  2. Negative views about oneself 

  3. Negative views about the future. 

This results in the symptoms typical of depression (Beck, 1967).

     3. Psychodynamic Theory

According to Sigmund Freud, the unconscious mind, the part of the mind we don’t usually have access to, is divided into three parts. These parts include the:

  • Id : The irrational and impulsive part that desires immediate gratification.
  • Ego : The rational part which tries to act as a mediator between rational and impulsive parts.
  • Super-ego : The rational or logical part that prefers conformity to societal norms.

He proposed that the development of depression in an individual resulted from conflict between these three parts of the unconscious mind, which leads to suppression of emotion. This often occurs during peak developmental years.

For example, a child with hostile, demanding and neglectful parents will develop feelings of anger, sadness or guilt towards them. Not knowing how to express these feelings towards his primary caregivers, he will try to repress them, and unconsciously direct them towards himself. 

Over time, these feelings might lead to severe problems in self esteem, or might even to the cognitive triad of depression, including negative views about oneself, the future, and the world. This might put one at risk for developing depression.

These feelings were anger and hostility because Freud believed that we unconsciously hold negative feelings toward the ones we love, because of their power over us. This is what led to the psychodynamic idea that depression is anger turned towards oneself. Freud assumed that depression could also occur in response to or symbolic losses. For example, a student who fails a class or who fails at a romantic relationship might experience this symbolically as a loss of his parents’ love. (Freud, 1917).

     4. Learned helplessness and Attribution Style 

This theory proposes that the type of stressful event most likely to lead to depression is uncontrollable negative events. Such events, if they are frequent or chronic, can lead people to believe they are helpless to control the outcomes in their environment. This belief also leads people to lose their motivation and to reduce actions on their part that might control the environment as well as leaving them incapable to learn how to control situations that are controllable. These kind of personal deficits are very similar to the commonly reported symptoms of depression, which include loss of motivation, loss of interest and severe indecisiveness 

For example, many abused women develop the belief that they have no control over their beatings or other related parts of their lives. This belief might also explain their high rates of depression and their tendency to continue to remain in their seriously abusive relationships with their partners. This theory constitutes behaviour that occurs as a result of endurance of an unpleasant situation. The individual perceives the unpleasantness to be inescapable, and stops resisting it altogether. 

The basis of this theory is attributional style, which refers to the development of certain thinking patterns that one develops due to life events, that form trust or mistrust. For example, an individual who has had difficult upbringing, or has experienced parental loss will develop a negative attributional style, due to lack of control over negative life events.

This means that they will consistently view things as:

  • Internal : Everything bad is their fault

  • Stable : Things will stay bad forever

  • Global : More bad things will continue to happen

For example, if your significant other starts to treat you badly and you come to an assumption that it is due to the fact that you are not good looking or intelligent, then you are much more likely to become depressed than if you conclude that your partner might just be in a bad mood and did not mean to displace his emotions onto you on purpose.

People with a stable pessimistic attributional style have a vulnerability for depression when faced with uncontrollable negative events. This kind of cognitive style seems to develop, at least in part, through social learning. This is known to be a cause for developing depression (Seligman, 1988).

     5. Humanistic Theory

This theory is based on our basic and advanced needs as human beings. One of our advanced needs is self actualization, which means reaching our true potential, and being completely satisfied. Things that restrict our striving to fulfil this need, can lead to depression.

As children, the one thing that can hinder the need for self actualization is our parents’ behaviour towards us. For example, some parents implement certain conditions on their children, such as ‘I will only love you if you get good grades.’ the child does not receive unconditional and complete love. This leads to the development of a negative self-image and feelings of worthlessness. As the child fails to meet the parents’ standards, it distorts his idea of self and might lead to depression.

As adults, the need for achieving self-actualization might be restricted by unfulfilling relationships or career paths. For example, if an individual is unable to offer and accept love from their partner, it could lead to feelings of loneliness, and depression. A job that does not satisfy or bring joy to the individual, restricts the flow of creativity and workplace liberty. This might lead to the development of depression, due to dissatisfaction and a negative image of one’s environment (Maslow, 1962).

     6. Behaviorist Theory

Many decades ago, a number of theorists in the behavioral tradition of psychology, had developed behavioral theories of depression, proposing that some people might be at risk of experiencing depressive symptoms, either when their responses are no longer producing any positive reinforcement, or when their rate of negative experiences in their life continuously increases.

This is consistent with research which proves that people with depression do receive fewer positive reinforcements from their families and friends than people who are not depressed; and also experience more negative events. Furthermore, they have lower activity levels, and their mood varies with their positive and rate of negative experiences.

The environmental stressors in one’s life, might cause one to receive minimal positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a phenomenon that occurs when people do something that results in rewards for that particular behaviour. This  increases the chances that people will repeat the behavior that will lead them to derive pleasure and rewards out of. 

For example, people go to their workplace regularly in order to receive money and make a living. Thus, here, a salary motivates work, and acts as a reinforcer to continue work.

When an individual does not know how to cope with the fact that they are no longer receiving positive reinforcement, it can be a cause for depression. For example, a child used to receive a chocolate after doing an hour of homework. Although, now he doesn’t get the chocolate anymore. This might lead to feelings of worthlessness and confusion. 

This emphasizes the role of the environment in shaping human behavior. We learn and unlearn behaviour. Thus, depression could be the result of an individual’s interaction with their environment (Skinner, 1938).

     7. Sociocultural theory

Sociocultural theorists have recently discussed the importance of how differences in social environments of several varied demographic groups result in differences in vulnerability to development of depression. Evolutionary changes may also have put more recent or younger generations at a much higher risk for depression than older generations. This phenomenon is called a cohort effect.

For example, fewer than 20 percent of people born before 1915 appear to have experienced major depressive symptoms, while on the other hand, over 40 percent of people born after 1955 appear to be at risk for developing depressive symptoms at some point in their lifetime. 

Theorists have also suggested that the more recent generations are at a higher risk for depression due to the rapid changes in their social beliefs and values. Another probable cause is that the younger generations have unrealistically high expectations for life outcomes for themselves. In contrast, the older generations did not experience this. As a result, the generational gap can also be a contributor to the development of depression in individuals.

     8. Gender Differences 

We observed earlier that women are  twice as likely to suffer

from depression, than men. Several theories have been generated for this gender difference. When faced with severe distress in life, men are more likely to turn to alcohol to cope and to deny that they are distressed, than women. Moreover,  women are more likely than men to ruminate about their feelings and life events.

As a result, men may be at a higher risk of developing disorders such as alcohol abuse. On the other hand, women’s tendency to ruminate makes them more likely to develop depression. These varied responses to stress might be due to social norms, as it is more acceptable for men to turn to alcohol than women; and for women to ruminate than men.

Perhaps also due to gender socialization, women tend to be more interpersonally oriented than men. On one side, women’s strong interpersonal connections might give them support in a time of need. Although,  when bad things happen to others or when there is conflict present in  relationships, women are more likely than men to report depressive symptoms.

Women also appear more likely than men to base their self-worth on the health of their relationships. Women in many societies have less status and power than men, and as a result they experience more discrimination, or violence. Sexual abuse, specifically experienced in childhood, contributes to depression in women throughout their lifetime.


Depression is a phenomena which affects the whole person with the intricate connections among biology, cognitions, and social interactions. These areas of functioning are so intertwined that changes in any one area almost necessarily will lead to changes in other areas. Several  recent models of depression suggest that most people who become depressed, also carry a vulnerability to depression for much of their lives. This can be a biological vulnerability, such as dysfunctions in their neurotransmitter systems, or a psychological vulnerability, such as an overdependence on other people as well.

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Great Information about depression, was Quite interesting. Keep going on. All the best.

Srushti BM

Very informative .nice work !!!

Rithika Belamkar

Woahh! Truly an amazing content to speak on. Well done Happy to see people coming out and talking about this.

Vandana Jaiswal

Thankyou..was really beneficial…learned alot.

Harshit Juneja

An amazing article overall. The topic was covered very well and loved the multiple theory approach. Would love to read more articles of yours!

Miloni Modi

This was really informative. Loved the content and the write up formation. Keep up the good work!

Jigyasa vashistha

Thanks for this article ❤Superbly written.. Wishing you all the very best. Have a nice day

Jigyasa vashistha


Joanna Ann Daniel

I genuinely love how you have explained depression through all the different theories. It was a good read! Very well put together!:)

Yuvanue chauhan

Great amount of information .. Great work

Riya Rajkotiya

Great peice of work

Jigyasa vashistha

This is such a lovely read

Nidhi Dahiya

Informative concept. Amazing article