photo of man with depression

What Are the Causes of Depression?

From a lack of motivation to trouble sleeping and beyond, depression affects every aspect of your life. It’s more than just feeling a little low or sad. It zaps your energy, making it difficult to fulfill your life’s purpose. People tend to isolate themselves during a bout of depression, leaving you even more cut off from your support network. You can start to lean on unhealthy coping behaviors, which make it even harder to emerge from the cloud of depression.

Although it may feel like there is no end in sight, there are so many ways to holistically treat depression. At The Sanctuary, we combine Western, Indigenous, and alternative therapies in a personalized, comfortable setting. 

The key to finding a treatment that works for you is identifying the cause of your depression. While many treatment centers teach that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain, there’s no actual scientific proof of this. There are however many other causes of depression like genetics, childhood trauma, stressful events, and even gut health. Below, we’ll break down the most common causes of depression. 

What Can Cause Depression?

There isn’t a simple on-and-off switch in your brain for depression. A single event or a combination of elements can cause this complex condition. The following factors can all increase your risk for depression. It’s important to recognize the role of each factor in your life to gain a clearer picture of its cause.


Your genes play a big role in a lot of aspects of your life, from the color of your eyes to your IQ. Genetics also influence your risk for developing depression, though it’s unknown just how big the influence is. 

Through genome sequencing to family and twin studies, we know there is a link between our genetic makeup and our risk of depression. If you have a first-degree family member with depression, you’re two to three times more likely to develop depression yourself over your lifetime. 

However, there are no genes that singularly cause depression. Studies point to the fact that it’s our genetic makeup in combination with our environment and behaviors that increase our risk for depression. Epigenetics–or how your environment and behaviors can change your gene expression–is actually the main link between genetics and depression

Just because our genes can increase our risk of developing depression doesn’t mean we’re at the mercy of them. Epigenetics allows us to regain our control. By changing our environment and behaviors, we can affect our genes’ expressions, moving away from depressive symptoms. We discuss a spectrum of holistic treatments for depression below, but certain therapies like meditation and cognitive restructuring work in this way. 

Childhood Trauma

Depression can be a coping mechanism for unresolved traumas from childhood when your brain was still developing. It’s a way for your brain to subconsciously avoid an issue in order to protect you. 

Unresolved trauma from childhood abuse, neglect, or stress can manifest itself as depression. In one study, 75% of the patients with chronic depression had a history of significant childhood trauma. People who had multiple traumatic experiences in childhood typically had more severe depression symptoms. 

Part of the link between childhood trauma and depression has to do with emotion regulation. Childhood trauma can affect the way our bodies and minds subconsciously and consciously handle stress. This lack of emotional regulation gets wired into your brain. Then, when you’re in adulthood and facing emotional situations, your body still struggles with regulating your feelings and reactions. 

Issues with emotional regulation are strongly correlated to the severity of depressive symptoms. Being unable to identify, express, and communicate your feelings can lead to feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem. These are indicators of depression and can make existing depression worse. 

Physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse during childhood creates trauma that, unless resolved healthily, can lead to depressive symptoms like self-isolation, low self-worth, and feelings of hopelessness. These feelings can become hardwired into our brains, leading to depression.

Grief and Anxiety From Stressful Life Events

Stressful life events like abuse, the loss of a loved one, financial concerns, becoming a parent, and more can all lead to depression. In one study, stressful life events preceded 80% of the cases of depression identified. 

Plus, grief and anxiety stemming from these stressful life events both share a lot of symptoms with depression: sadness, trouble sleeping, difficulty dealing with practical matters, decreased appetite, or inability to concentrate. 

Not only do they share symptoms, but grief and anxiety can also lead to depression if not dealt with healthily. Grief-related major depression happens when healthy grieving becomes a coping method for your loss. 

People with generalized anxiety disorder frequently then get diagnosed with depression if their anxious thoughts lead to feelings of low self-worth or fear of leaning on their support system. Fear and false beliefs that we’re not good enough to deserve the things we want in life or to deal with the situations we’re facing can also lead to depression. 

Gut Health 

Many people believe that because depression is a mental health disorder, the causes are only mental or emotional. However, as you’ll see, there are many physical causes of depression. The most surprising may be the link between your gut microbiome and depression.

The microbes in your gut are responsible for functions like bowel movements and digestion, but they are also in charge of the absorption of nutrients. Studies have shown that a healthy gut microbiome can transmit brain signals that help regulate your emotions during stressful events. A healthy and diverse gut microbiome is also connected to healthier sleep patterns, which is an important indicator of depression. 

Physical Illness

Depression is not just a mental health issue. There is a strong connection between your physical and mental health. Three other known ways that physical illness can lead to depression are:


Inflammation is a very common symptom of many physical illnesses – from autoimmune diseases like lupus or multiple sclerosis to the common cold. 

When your immune system detects a pathogen in the body, it activates certain cells known as pro-inflammatory cytokines. These immune cells coordinate the attack effort against the pathogen, but they also induce inflammatory proteins in the brain. These proteins can trigger major depression with symptoms like fatigue, lack of appetite, social withdrawal, and sluggishness. 

Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency can also contribute to depression. In one study, people diagnosed with depression had overall lower levels of vitamin D. Plus, people with the lowest vitamin D level had an increased risk of depression. 

More studies need to be done to identify the exact reasons for this link and how we can use vitamin D as a treatment for depression. However, researchers have currently found three different connections between vitamin D and depression:

  1.  Vitamin D receptors in the brain are located in regions that coordinate mood regulation
  2. The anti-inflammatory properties of vitamin D 
  3. Vitamin D’s role as an immune regulating mechanism

Hormone Imbalances

The link between female reproductive events that cause a fluctuation in hormones and depression has been studied extensively. It’s one of the main hypotheses for why women are two times more likely to develop depression than men. 

Estrogen and progesterone affect areas of the brain in charge of mood regulation and behavior. Both of these hormones fluctuate during menstruation, pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause.  These times are the most common times for women to experience depressive symptoms. 

Substance Misuse Can Induce a Depressive Spiral

Using depressants like alcohol, opioids, or sleeping pills can lead to major depressive disorders because of the way they interact with your brain. They slow down normal brain function, which numbs people to life around them with continuous use. Using a large amount at once can also induce feelings of sadness or hopelessness. 

This inability to connect with the world, combined with other long-term side effects like chronic fatigue, sleeping disturbances, and suicidal thoughts can lead to depression. One-third of alcoholics experience severe depression within a given year because of this. 

Other types of drugs like stimulants, narcotics, and hallucinogens can also induce depression. These drugs can affect the function and production of serotonin, dopamine, and peptide, which all play a role in emotional regulation and mood. Plus, withdrawal from stimulants and narcotics, in particular, can also cause depression because the body won’t make these chemicals on its own after relying on the drugs to produce them.

Once experiencing the negative effects of addiction like financial and relationship troubles or withdrawal symptoms, many people turn again to the substance to cope. It turns into a vicious depressive cycle where each use triggers a more severe depression and more intense effects on your life. 

Can You Cure Depression?

Despite the claims of conventional treatment approaches, depression is curable.  By knowing the reason for your depression, we can create a personalized and effective treatment plan for you at The Sanctuary. Depression is a symptom of something bigger happening in your life. That’s why it’s crucial to pinpoint what’s happening behind the scenes to cause it.

Whether it’s genetics, childhood trauma, physical illness, or substance misuse, we have a wide variety of holistic treatments effective for treating depression. Here are a few of the therapies we use to support our clients through their healing process:

Bodywork to Reduce Inflammation and Release Trauma

Bodywork therapies cover a wide range of treatments that use physical touch to heal. Massage, acupressure, reflexology, and more all work to bring awareness to your physical being and reduce tension. 

Massage in particular has been shown to both ease symptoms of depression and reduce inflammation. As we discussed earlier, inflammation, particularly in the brain, has been shown to cause major depressive episodes. Reducing it through massage can help treat depression.

Massage can also help you release the physical tension from emotional traumas. This is one step in resolving your traumas and moving past them.

Mindful Nutrition to Improve Gut Health

At The Sanctuary, all of our guests eat nutritious, nourishing meals together. A diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and antioxidants has been shown to decrease the risk of depression. We also provide a wide range of supplements to make sure all of your nutritional needs are being met. 

A healthy gut microbiome is important for mental health, so it’s essential to pay attention to what we’re putting into our bodies. We can foster gut health with probiotics and natural foods, so our mental health can thrive.

Talk Therapy Can Help Us Resolve Childhood Trauma, Addiction, and Depression 

One pathway to healing from childhood trauma, addiction, and depression is through talk therapy. It can help you uncover the buried feelings and traumas causing your depression. 

With childhood trauma, it’s important to be able to identify how it’s affecting you. Once identified, you can start to resolve and overcome it. Talk therapy such as trauma-focused CBT places you in a situation to confront these traumas alongside a trained professional who can support and assist your journey. You can develop healthy emotional regulation and improve your feelings of self-worth once you face the unhelpful thoughts surrounding these events. 

With addiction, talk therapy is a helpful tool for many. It helps you understand what you’re using drugs to cope with on a deeper level. Once you know why you’re using drugs, you can address those underlying issues rather than just find another coping method. It is crucial to treat your addiction in order to overcome depression. Studies show that successfully treating your addiction facilitates treatment of your depression, and vice-versa. 

Finally, talk therapy helps us rewrite any “genetic destiny” connected to a higher risk of depression through epigenetics and neuroplasticity. It allows us to rewire our brain to shut off negative genetic expressions that cause depressive symptoms by shifting towards more positive self-talk. By continuously talking through our negative thoughts, we can weaken the brain pathways connected to negative thought patterns and reinforce positive ones.

Holistic Treatments for Depression

  • Energy Medicine: techniques like acupuncture, Reiki, and Qi Gong help you reconnect with your natural energetic rhythms 
  • Herbalism: Chinese herbal medicine has been proven to be more effective and safer than prescription anti-depressants 
  • Pranayama (Controlled Breathing): breath awareness during mindful meditation is therapeutic, calming, and allows you to more freely connect with your body and energy
  • Prescription Drugs: Prescription anti-depressants can help start your journey towards healing depression by easing symptoms, but we also work to move past relying on them through the therapies listed above

Own your journey by knowing the cause and working with our therapists to determine the best course of treatment for you. If you want to move out from under the dark cloud of depression, contact The Sanctuary today to start your path towards healing and reconnecting with life. 

Kelley Alexander JD. photo

Kelley Alexander JD.  is the co-director of The Sanctuary at Sedona and has worked over the last decade to develop its innovative Integrative Addiction Recovery Program that has helped hundreds of clients to be recovered from addiction and co-occurring disorders. Through her pioneering work, Kelley and her team at The Sanctuary also work with clients to overcome issues related to codependency, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. A JD and former practicing attorney, Kelley holds a BA in World Religions and has done graduate work in psychology. She is an ordained minister, certified shamanic breathwork facilitator, and a graduate of the Four Winds Healing The Light Body School, the premier energy medicine program founded by Alberto Villoldo. Kelley has also been a student of Dr. Joe Dispenza since 2009. She is a member of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology and the Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies. She is a frequent lecturer at seminars and conferences throughout the United States.
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