Traumatic life events are the single largest cause of anxiety and depression, a recent huge study finds.
However, whether a person becomes anxious or depressed depends on their mental approach to these events.
The findings come from a large survey of over 32,000 adults of all ages in the UK (Kinderman et al., 2013).
Professor Peter Kinderman, who led the research, said:
“Depression and anxiety are not simple conditions and there is no single cause.
We wanted to find out more about what caused people to suffer from anxiety and depression and why some people suffered more than others.”
The survey asked people whether they had a family history of mental health problems, their education and income levels, their social circumstances, relationship status and about any traumatic life events they’d experienced.
The results showed that, after traumatic life events, which were the single largest cause of depression and anxiety, the next largest causes were a family history of mental illness and income and education levels.
Both social factors and relationship status had smaller effects on the risk of depression and anxiety.
Professor Kinderman continued:
“Whilst we know that a person’s genetics and life circumstances contribute to mental health problems, the results showed that traumatic life events are the main reason people suffer from anxiety and depression.
However, the way a person thinks about, and deals with, stressful events is as much an indicator of the level of stress and anxiety they feel.
Whilst we can’t change a person’s family history or their life experiences, it is possible to help a person to change the way they think and to teach them positive coping strategies that can mitigate and reduce stress levels.”
Crucially, there were three thinking and behavioural styles which tended to increase the chance someone would experience depression and anxiety:
- Rumination: when depressing thoughts roll around-and-around in the mind (here are some ways to get rid of negative thoughts).
- Lack of adaptive coping: examples include failing to seek support from others, eating poorly, not exercising and failing to anticipate stressful episodes.
- Self-blame: this is a very toxic type of mental habit. Unsurprisingly, its opposite, self-acceptance, is a key happy habit.
Although major, traumatic life events can have a powerful effect, little daily hassles can also be the cause of anxiety and depression (see: Can Everyday Hassles Make You Depressed?).
But in both cases it’s vital to realise that how people think about and approach life’s challenges can make a massive difference.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Freddie Pena