Depression is a mental health condition that causes a persistent low mood and loss of interest in activities that the person once enjoyed. It’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.
Many factors in someone’s day-to-day life could trigger depression symptoms, and the possible triggers vary from person to person.
Understanding depression triggers can help people manage their condition and prevent or reduce the impact of a depression relapse.
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Depression is a very complex mental illness and is the subject of continual research. There is no single cause for depression, though it is most directly caused by an imbalance or interplay of chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) in the brain that help regulate mood.
Some other factors that can be considered causes of depression include:
Genetics: People with blood relatives with depression are more likely to develop depression themselves.
Environmental causes, such as previous trauma, especially when experienced as a child.
Biological factors such as medical conditions and medications.
Psychological factors, including other mental health conditions.
These factors can make a person more vulnerable to developing depression, especially when exposed to related triggers.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), some characteristic symptoms of depression include:¹
Having a low or depressed mood
Losing interest and pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
Having sleep disturbances
Feeling guilty or worthless
Experiencing fatigue or other changes in energy levels
Having difficulty concentrating or maintaining attention
Experiencing appetite and weight changes
Thinking about suicide.
In mental health, a trigger is an emotional, physical, or psychological factor that brings on or worsens symptoms of a condition.
People with depression can have a range of different triggers that are based on their own personal life experiences. Sometimes, depression arises with no recognizable trigger.
Many of the causes described above can combine to trigger depression. Additional triggers for depression may include:
It’s normal to experience sadness and feel depressed after losing a loved one.
While this doesn’t always lead to a depression disorder, going through grief and loss, such as with the death of a loved one, can trigger depression in some people.
Social rejection, especially after repetitively being rejected or excluded from something, can increase the risk of developing depression. For instance, rejection could be experienced due to a relationship break-up or loss of a job.
Rejection sensitivity, which is when someone is more likely to expect and react to perceived or actual rejection, is also linked to the onset of depression.²
Most depressive episodes are triggered by stressful life events that occur within six months before the onset of symptoms.
Poverty, unemployment, and other financial stresses can trigger depression, especially in university students without a mental health history and who have had to stop studying due to financial reasons.
Displacement among refugees and immigrants is another stressful experience that can trigger depression.
Sexual and physical assault, bullying, abuse, or experiencing racism can trigger depression.
Sleep disturbances often occur before a depression episode. This may also contribute to the development of depression. Sleep deprivation can also increase the severity and duration of a depression episode.
Some people experience low mood and depression due to changes in seasons, either from winter to spring/summer or from summer to autumn/winter.
This condition is a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression.
Chronic substance abuse triggers an increase in the severity of mood disorders, possibly including depression. Alcohol dependence can also induce depression.
Some research suggests that binge-watching TV and finishing a TV series or movie may trigger depression. It also may intensify a person’s depression, including social isolation, loneliness, and insomnia.³
Exposure to negative news through newspapers, radio, social media, or TV could contribute to someone’s low mood and depression. Negative news can increase feelings of sadness, fear, distress, and anger.
When someone goes through significant life events, they may reflect on them by ruminating.
Rumination is having repetitive and excessive thoughts about something that has happened in the past and generally something that brings distress. Rumination causes the person to think so much that it interferes with other forms of mental activity.
Rumination is associated with increased depressive symptoms. It’s thought that rumination might trigger depression symptoms by mediating the relationship between stressful events and psychological distress.
Sometimes, positive events can trigger depression in a person. For example:
Giving birth can trigger depression in some women. This is a condition called postpartum depression.
Some significant life changes, such as changing jobs, moving to a new house, or getting married, are happy and normal occurrences for many people. However, for some people, these big life changes can trigger depression.
Some medical conditions can also trigger depression. This may be in the form of a direct link to depression or due to the anxiety and stress that these conditions can impose on daily life.
Medical conditions that can trigger depression include:
Certain nutrient deficiencies
Some medications that are used to treat these illnesses can also trigger depression.
A relapse is when a person’s depression comes back within six months after their first depressive episode. About 60% of people experience depression relapse.⁴
A relapse differs from recurrent depression, which is when the depression returns more than six months after the first depressive episode.
In addition to the triggers described above, some other factors that may trigger a depression relapse include:
Not completing treatment (especially a course of medication) before recovering from the first depressive episode
Completing treatment but still having residual depression symptoms afterward
Previously experiencing a depression relapse
Poor management of problems in everyday life
Struggling to have positive thoughts.
The symptoms that can identify a depression relapse may be similar to those experienced in an initial depression episode.
For example, someone may start to withdraw from family and friends again, have thoughts about hurting themself, lose interest or motivation in daily tasks or hobbies, or feel sadder than usual, often without an obvious reason.
A person can do several things when they’re exposed to a potential depression trigger. Some of the best ways to manage triggers in general, and not just for depression, include:
Learning how to identify their personal triggers and write them down to refer back to or show a doctor.
Creating a plan for how to assess and cope with triggers when they arise.
Reaching out for support when someone or a situation may be triggering or when difficult times arise.
Trying to reshape negative thoughts into positive ones.
Looking for “trigger warnings” in visual material that may be related to violence or suicide.
Always prioritizing mental health and practicing self-care, such as through journaling or meditation, to help with relaxation and de-stressing.
It’s not always possible to prevent a relapse. However, for the best chance of making a full recovery, someone with depression should consider the following:
Become educated about depression, and educate the family: One way to prevent relapse is to educate the patient and their family on the early signs of a depressive episode.
Seek treatment as early as possible: This can help prevent the relapse from worsening. Knowing who to turn to, whether that be a friend or family member, or health professional, and ensuring you have a good rapport with them, often leads to better outcomes.
Keep taking prescribed medication: Taking medication for four to nine months is usually enough to stop symptoms from returning. Stopping taking the medication too early increases the risk of a depression relapse.
Mindfulness: One study found that people who engaged in a mindfulness-based program were half as likely to experience a relapse.
If a patient has chronic depression, wants to avoid a relapse, or has had two or more depression relapses, they may need maintenance treatment. This can involve taking medication for one to two years or, in some cases, life-long, continuing psychotherapy, and being closely monitored by a mental health professional.
It’s also not possible to avoid all triggers because life is unpredictable. This is why it’s essential to understand the triggers and how to cope with them.
The most common ways to treat depression and potential triggers include:
Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and atypical antidepressants, can help to treat depression.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) often plays an important role in treating depression. CBT helps patients form better connections between their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.
Following a healthy diet, engaging in regular moderate-intensity exercise, reducing alcohol use, and improving sleep hygiene can help treat depression and manage symptoms.
Some people need a higher level of care for depression. Staying in an inpatient facility can provide more specialized care for an individual.
Many factors can trigger depression. Identifying these triggers is an essential first step in reducing the impact depression has on daily life and preventing a relapse.
If you have thoughts of hurting yourself, or if you know someone who’s having such thoughts, it’s important to reach out to either a crisis hotline or emergency services as soon as possible.
Some examples of depression triggers include grief, social rejection, chronic stress, illnesses, sleep disturbances, financial strain, rumination, and big changes in one’s life.
The most common trigger for the first episode of depression is a stressful acute life event.
Depression | World Health Organization
Depression: Overview (2006)
Depression | Mind
3 the etiology of depression (2009)
Can grief morph into depression? | Harvard Health Publishing
The pain of social rejection | American Psychological Association