It is a myth that depression is primarily a biological illness or genetically inherited. The fact that depression has increased so strikingly in modern times, affecting different people of different ages and in different cultures at different rates, tells us something crucial about the nature of depression. Genes just don't change that fast. What has changed is our society. It is the changing nature of our lives and the way we live them that now leaves so many of us struggling to cope, and so susceptible to depression. While many of the advances of our modern, technological culture are to our benefit, the downside is that they often have consequences that go against human nature which is experienced as physical and emotional needs that have to be met if we are to live healthy and fulfilled lives.

Underlying the experience of depression is the fact that people who succumb to it are not having their needs met. Depression is always secondary to another problem.

Fundamentally, depression stems from a sense of loss: losing a loved one due to their passing away or ending a relationship; losing one's job; losing one's status; losing friends; losing one's beauty; losing one's health; losing one's ability to bear children; losing one's memory; losing one's enjoyment of life; and so on. However, most of us successfully navigate these rites of passage since it is in our nature to deal with those losses as we go through life.

So what is it that prevents some individuals from falling into depression while others can endure life's disappointments and tragedies, whatever they may be?

It is not circumstances that lead to depression but how we respond to them that matters.

Some visible tendencies distinguish the people who get depressed from the people who don't. Understanding what they are and starting to notice them when they appear is a big step towards taking some of the power out of them.

All-or-nothing thinking

People in the grip of depression tend to think in either/or, black-or-white, all-or-nothing terms. I am either a success or a complete failure. If I don't look perfect, I'm ugly. If I make a mistake I should never have bothered. This polarised thinking leaves no room for the grey areas that are often closer to reality. This way of thinking makes things more difficult since it leaves us open to stronger emotional responses. If failing a test implies that you are a failure as a person, the emotional consequences will be more severe and more difficult to recover from.

This type of thinking is emotional thinking, not rational thinking. People often don't realise that depression is an emotion, a strong emotion. When feelings are very strong they automatically overwhelm rational intelligence and we often become downright stupid. The bigger picture disappears completely. Whenever we are emotionally overwhelmed by events, we all tend to think this way for a while, but people who are not normally black-and-white thinkers snap out of it quite quickly. Some people, however, tend towards this all-or-nothing most of the time, and they are the ones more likely to sink into depression.

Mind reading

Most of our lives are spent wondering about what other people thinking. But when we are feeling down, we are more likely to assume that those guesses are true. ‘When my friend looked at me funny I just knew she hated me.'  However, on another day, when I'm not having a hard time feeling down, I might be more willing to question her or just be a little more inquisitive about what was going on.

When you're feeling down, you might notice that you feel like you need extra reassurance from other people. If you don't receive it, you may believe that they are having negative thoughts about you.


When we are struggling with low mood it only takes one thing to go wrong, and we tend to write off the whole day. Overgeneralisation is when we see one event that went wrong as a sign that today will be ‘one of those days'. This way of thinking often shows up along with the pain of a breakup. One relationship ends and our thoughts start to suggest that this means we will never make a relationship work and could never be happy with anyone else.

Egocentric thinking

When times are tough and you're not feeling at your best, this tends to narrow your focus. Taking into account the thoughts, views, and sometimes differing values of other individuals becomes more challenging. We may feel less connected to other people as a result, which can lead to issues in our relationships.

To put it bluntly, depression makes a person almost completely selfish. You are thinking all the time about how things affect you and how you feel about them. You can't think about the needs or feelings of people - even those who love you - except to feel bad about yourself for not thinking of them. Everything revolves around you. And it is the innate selfishness of depression that is hard for friends and family to tolerate. It can, if it goes on too long, even drive people away from you.

The powerful pull of pessimism

As life rarely goes according to plan and no relationship is flawless, people prone to depression tend to be pessimistic about life and expect little of themselves or other people. Like the Sirens' song, this point of view is seductive. It lets the pessimistic person off the hook of having to make an effort to engage with the world and other people. They only have to consider a small number of possibilities: the negative ones. Their chances of fully experiencing life, with all its benefits and challenges, are reduced because they only concentrate on a one-size-fits-all approach to life, the obstacles and drawbacks, and constantly choose not to take on anything that may lead to failure or disappointment.

A grave consequence of an extremely pessimistic mindset is that depressed individuals cannot even believe it is worthwhile to get therapy for themselves since they are certain that nothing will ever work.

What to do with thought patterns that make you feel worse

Thoughts will always come, but we can recognise them for what they are—biased thoughts—and then choose how to react to them.

First, we need to notice the biases as they appear. If we don't step back and see them as a bias, we buy into them as if they represent the fair reflection of reality. Then they can fuel that depression and continue to impact our decisions. As a general rule, it helps to look for a perspective that feels more balanced, fair and compassionate and that takes into account all the information available. Emotions tend to drive more extreme and biased views. But life is often more complex and full of grey areas. It's OK not to have a clear opinion on something while you take time to think about different sides of the story.

Noticing thought biases sounds obvious, and it is simple, but it's not always easy. When we're in the moment, we don't only experience a thought that we can see clearly. We experience a mess of emotions, physical sensations, images, memories and urges, all at once. We are so used to doing everything on autopilot that stopping to check out the details of the process can take a lot of practice, but it helps, and it stops small moments from turning into big ones.

If depression is allowed to deepen and persist, all that happens is that you have the misery of depression to cope with, on top of whatever loss or difficulty was the initial trigger.