As a psychologist, a question I often get asked is: What are the causes of depression?
The answer to this question is not one you will find in an encyclopedia or the latest research; it is one you will have to find within yourself.
Even though the causes of depression are multiple and highly specific to each individual, there are some common psychological causes of depression that often reveal themselves through the course of therapy.
In the coming months, I want to address these causes in a series of articles called “The causes of depression”.
In today’s article, I want to focus on attachment trauma as a frequent cause of depression. In future articles, I will address other causes, including: emotional inhibition, and unconscious conflict.
Why Am I Depressed?
Depression is a sign that you have become psychologically stuck and that some internal conflict or issue is halting your ability to deal with current life circumstances. Instead of meeting these challenges and feeling effective in your life, you are shrinking from them and feeling blocked.
The challenges you are shrinking from do not have to be conscious. Even if we may not be aware of the cause of our depression, and may not be able to point to a particular dilemma in our life, our body and psyche still keeps score. The answer to the question: why am I depressed? is thus always within me, hidden underneath layers of my more conscious understanding.
Causes of Depression: Attachment Trauma
A frequent cause of depression that I see a lot in my psychology practice is what could be referred to as an early attachment trauma.
Research is increasingly validating the idea that human beings are driven to maintain a secure connection to other people. We are not isolated individuals from birth, but highly relational beings.
When ruptures occur to our relational bonds, we react as if we are endangered.
Sometimes, in response to this threat, we may cling more to people in our surroundings. We may abandon ourselves in order to become what we think others need us to be to make sure they want to be around us.
In other instances, we may go numb, lose contact with our feelings, and begin to live deprived and hollow lives to protect ourselves from the risk of rejection.
In both cases, we pay a heavy toll to protect ourselves from loss and rejection. The toll we pay is that we become depressed.
In the avoidant response to unsafe attachment, we deaden ourselves. We come to therapy complaining that we are just going through the motions or don’t feel much excitement in life. We may not even consciously feel that we need others in our life, because to feel the need is already too dangerous and threatening.
The unconscious life strategy in this avoidant attachment pattern seems to be:
“Life is not giving me what I want and I can’t do anything about it. My only option is therefore to cut out my needs for comfort and love and pretend that I don’t care about these things.”
Unfortunately, the body keeps score, and my depression is a reminder that my solution to life’s deprivations is not a satisfying one.
In the more actively pursuing response, we may come to therapy complaining that no one really knows us or appreciates us for who we are. Or, we may complain that we feel lonely even when we are with people.
In this unconscious strategy to secure love and affection, we may largely ignore our own needs. Because our main focus is to make sure that others don’t leave us, we focus mostly on them and not on us.
Of course this spells trouble because we never really feel that the other person loves us or likes us simply for us. Instead, we suspect that they only stick around as long as we cater to their needs.
In the lighter end of this spectrum, we may thus feel annoyed or deprived, or simply scared of being alone. In the more severe end of the spectrum, however, we may feel completely lost to ourselves, and be so alienated from our own needs and wishes that we don’t know what we want or who we really are anymore.
Because deep down, we don’t feel seen and don’t believe others care about us, we begin to feel depressed whenever others seem to confirm this fear. A missing phone call, a friend who is too busy, another’s desire for alone time can all activate our fears, and we may find ourselves confused about why these little slights can plummet us into the depths of a depression.
Getting to the Root of Our Depression:
In therapy, the root cause of these ways of living can often be found in early deprivations and insecurities related to our primary caregivers or early childhood experiences.
Maybe we had an inconsistent alcoholic father, who frequently let us down, or who could not consistently show his love.
Maybe our mother was not psychologically available due to prolonged periods of depression during which she would become despondent.
Or maybe we moved around a lot and found it distressing to lose our friends or to not know when emotional ties would have to suddenly be cut off.
Whatever the reason, therapy might help you discover ongoing or very specific attachment traumas that made you feel uncertain about the dependability of others and unsafe in your attachment to other people.
If this is the case for you, the recipe for overcoming your depression, will not be an anti-depressant. Instead it will be coming to terms with interpersonal disappointments, mourning your losses, and integrating a more positive view of yourself instead of viewing yourself as flawed, faulty, or undeserving of love.
A good starting point for your exploration, will be to read the book by Robert Karen : Becoming Attached. This book will help you understand the link between frustrated attachment needs and the development of depression.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist who help people discover the psychological causes of their depression. Click on link to read more about the psychological treatment of depression.