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(disease)"...results from a complex interplay of many
factors - not only the biochemistry of your brain
but also the way you have lived your life; your
upbringing, what you eat and drink, whether you
have a support network and how susceptible you are
to stress....
All of these lifestyle influences can have a major
impact - for good or for ill - on whether or not you
become depressed and how successfully you
cope with your depression."
(Ref: Larry Katzenstein, Secrets of St John's Wort,
Hodder and Stoughton 1998, p173)

The causes of psychological health problems like chronic stress, anxiety and depression are complex and are not due to a single cause but often the result of a matrix of interacting factors; there is still so much we need to learn about the causes of these health problems. It is important to remember, as Dr E.P Sarafino says in her book, "Health Psychology", that we are all unique individuals and what may cause anxiety in one person may not necessarily cause excess anxiety in another person and that our individuality exists not only in our external features, but this individualism also extends into our internal organs and body chemistry as well.

We all have unique but subtle biochemical differences that can make some people more susceptible to developing chronic stress, anxiety and depression. For example some people, in response to stress, secrete forty times more stress hormone cortisol and pump four times more blood to the muscles and secrete four times more stress hormone adrenaline, than other people under the very same stress. Our nervous systems have different levels of reactivity, for example, some people's nervous system may take longer to switch off after the stressful event than other people's. A particular stressor may cause a problem for one person but may not cause a problem in another.


Here are a few of the factors that can be involved in causing or exacerbating chronic, excess stress, anxiety and depression in some people. Not all of these factors have to be present for psychological health problems to occur.

Contraceptive pill use
Recreational drug abuse
Psychological trauma
Caffeine excess
Food sensitivity
Lack of regular exercise
Genetic predisposition

Lack of natural light
Excess alcohol
Poor diet
Gender - females have twice risk of developing depression compared to men
Chronic illness

There is so much we still have to learn about how factors like brain biochemistry, life style, genetics and psychological factors influence brain chemistry and their role in causing psychological health problems but one theory is that clinical anxiety and clinical depression are in part caused by a disturbance in certain chemicals within the brain that are involved in regulating mood and anxiety reduction, such as dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, and GABA.

There are differing views among psychological health professionals concerning the causes of anxiety and clinical depression; some believe that psychological health problems are caused by biological problems, others believe they are due to psychological factors. Its probably more accurate to say that biological, psychological, genetic and lifestyle factors are all involved in the causes of psychological health problems. But what is certain is that psychological health problems are not caused by supposed moral weakness. These health problems are not all in people's minds. They are medical illnesses just as much as diabetes is a biological illness.

Genetic predisposition can be a factor involved in some of these health problems because they are prevalent in certain families. But just because one relative suffers with a psychological problem that does not automatically mean other family members will also suffer because although you may have a genetic susceptibility to the health problem, it may not be activated unless other factors in combination with genetics, trigger it. As we have said these health problems are probably caused by many interacting factors.

Dr Anthony Clare in his book, "Depression and How to Survive it", co-authored with Spike Milligan goes into detail about the causes of depression. He says depression has probably more than one cause, and that its too simplistic to blame it just on low levels of certain brain chemicals.

The problem in trying to understand the causes of psychological health problems is that we view them like we view physical disease in which there is usually a single cause causing a single disease, with psychological health problems that view is too simplistic.

There are people who, when exposed to alot of stress, don't become ill straight away, where as others exposed to small amounts of stress may develop illness more quickly. Not everybody who is brought up in an unsupportive, abusive environment will automatically suffer psychological health problems; just as there are people who are brought up in happy, warm, loving and supportive homes that may develop psycholgical health problems. So it's a difficult picture when trying to work out the causes of chronic stress and anxiety. In his book "Mind Sculpture", Ian Robertson talks of difficult upbringing causing physical changes in the brain, causing us to react more negatively to stress as an adult.

Our modern society is faster, more changing, more complex, more demanding, more fragmented today. People are having to move homes to different areas of the country leaving behind the social support structures of friends, and family who help reduce the risk of developing psychological health problems.

What is certain is that suffering a psychological health problem is not a punishment because of some perceived wrong doing. If that were the case 100% of the population would be afflicted. Just as a person with asthma isn't being punished because of some perceived wrong doing.

Research has shown that psychological and in certain cases pharmacological treatments can be of immense therapeutic help. There is a great deal that can be done to treat depression and/or anxiety - medication and especially the talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy are effective.


1. Health and Stress: The Newsletter of the American Institute of Stress, No 4, 1999.

2. McConville B. (1996) Beating the Blues, Self Help for Depression. Headline Publishers.

3. Milligan S, Clare A (1994) Depression and How to Survive it, Arrow.

4. O'Conner R, (1999) Undoing Depression: What therapy doesn't teach you and what medication can't give you, Berkley Books.

5. Robertson I (1999) Mind Sculpture, Bantam Press.

6. Sachs J. (1998) Natures Prozac, Simon and Schuster.

7. Sarafino E.P. (1998) Health Psychology, John Wiley, 3rd Edition.