Lifestyle Factors and Environmental Causes of Depression

Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Lifestyle Factors

man with bottle of alcoholPhysical health is an important foundation of mental health. People who are not physically healthy are at an increased risk for developing mental conditions such as depression. People who participate in unhealthy lifestyle practices also have a more difficult time overcoming depressive episodes than healthier people.  Their unhealthy lifestyle practices tend to work against many treatment effects. Negative lifestyle factors that can contribute to a depressive episode or drag one out include:

  • Abusing drugs and alcohol
  • Overworking
  • Poor diet, including too much caffeine or sugar
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor sleep
  • Lack of leisure time as well as fun and recreational activities

Environmental Causes

Synthetic chemicals, including food additives and preservatives, pesticides, hormones and drugs, genetically modified foods, and industrial byproducts are bombarding our bodies. In this center, we use the term "environmental causes" to describe environmental contributions to depressive disorders. These are present in our environment in the form of air, water and food pollution. Other non-chemical sources of environmental stress include noise pollution, electrical pollution, natural disasters, and other catastrophic environmental events. Some authors consider events like childhood abuse, long-term stress at home or work, coping with the loss of a loved one, or traumatic events as environmental.  We classify these types of issues as social and relationship causes of depression.

Although the DSM recognizes the problem of environmental pollutants in depressive disorders, studies are underway to find the exact relationship between environmental factors and depression. It is well known that air and water pollution can have consequences such as cancer and birth defects. Some people believe that the pollution in our environment is also affecting our mental health. For example, "sick building syndrome" is a condition caused by exposure to various poisonous conditions in a "sick building." This is usually an office or other building that has many people working close to each other. Individuals with this condition tend to become very anxious and irritable. They may hyperventilate and develop muscle twitches and cramps and/or have severe breathlessness.

A small body of research suggests that electrical pollution may be linked to mood disorders. Electrical pollution is caused by the low-level electromagnetic fields at intensities generated by the electrical equipment we use in our modern world. Electrical pollution is invisible, silent, odorless, and tasteless. Researchers have found that particular radio wavelengths can promote depression and rage. Larger, more controlled studies are necessary to determine the exact relationship between mood and radio waves.
Natural disasters such as destructive hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, as well as man-made catastrophic and traumatic events such as terrorist attacks, can contribute to an already vulnerable person's sensitivity to depression. A person with very little sensitivity to becoming depressed can also develop symptoms after they encounter a significant and traumatic environmental trigger such as the destruction of their home by a hurricane.

Our level of exposure to some of these environmental factors is partially under our control. For example, if water quality is bad in your area, you may be able to use an inexpensive water filter. If you believe that your health is being affected by chemical or electrical sensitivity, you may be able to take steps to avoid these substances.


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