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15 Signs That Someone Is at Risk for Depression

The greater the number, the greater the risk.

Key points

  • Psychological factors such as personality and anxiety raise the risk for depression.
  • Depression is more common among those who have had a lot of negative experiences, both in childhood and in adulthood.
  • Lifestyle factors including sleep, diet, and exercise play an important role in your mood.
Dragon Stock/Adobe Stock
Source: Dragon Stock/Adobe Stock

Recent research has shown that nearly half of us will develop major depression at some point in our lives (Schaefer et al., 2017). Knowing when you’re most at risk can tell you when to take steps to prevent an episode. Watch for these 15 signs:

1. A history of depression

No surprises here: One of the most reliable predictors of depression is having been depressed in the past. The risk is 50% after one bout of depression (not much higher than for the average person), but fully 90% after three episodes (Moriarty et al., 2020).

2. High neuroticism

Those who are high in the personality trait of neuroticism tend to experience a lot of negative emotion. Not surprisingly, neuroticism raises the risk for depression—especially when a person experiences loss or other forms of stress (Vinkers et al., 2014).

3. Overwhelming anxiety

Anxiety tends to shrink our lives through avoidance, which cuts out rewarding activities such as social contact; depression is a common result. For example, social anxiety disorder raises the risk of depression by about 50% (Beesdo et al., 2007).

4. Insomnia

Trouble sleeping isn’t just a symptom of depression; it can also be a sign that depression is coming. Research shows that insomnia more than doubles the risk for depression (Li et al., 2016).

5. Adverse childhood experiences

One of the most consistent predictors of depression is negative experiences early in life. These events can include parents’ divorce, abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, a parent’s death, and other major experiences that can leave long-lasting marks (Vinkers et al., 2014).

6. Death of a loved one

Losing a loved one in adulthood also raises depression risk. Research suggests depression is especially likely closer to the loss, but remains high for five years or more (Kristiansen et al, 2019).

7. High stress

A wide range of stressors—for example, financial difficulties, being robbed, or incarceration—elevate your risk for depression (Vinkers et al., 2014).

8. Breakup or divorce

Losing one’s romantic partner can bring a wide variety of stresses, including sadness and disappointment, loss of social support, breakdown of one’s social networks, and strains associated with co-parenting.

9. Extended illness

The effect of a chronic health condition on depression may be due both to the emotional strain of the illness and its limitations, as well as to direct physiological effects (Moussavi et al., 2007). For example, extended illnesses tend to act on the same inflammatory pathways that are linked to depression (Acabchuk et al., 2017).

10. Long-term caregiving

Taking care of others—an aging parent, an incapacitated spouse, or a child with a chronic health condition—is strongly linked to depression, especially when the burden of caregiving is greater (del-Pino-Casado et al., 2019).

11. Job loss

Being out of work is a significant risk factor for depression. Job insecurity alone is also a significant risk factor—perhaps even stronger than actually losing one’s job (Kim & von dem Knesebeck, 2016).

12. Darker months

Many people are prone to seasonal depression as the hours of daylight get shorter in the fall and winter (Galima et al., 2020).

13. Highly processed diet

A growing number of studies are showing that a highly processed diet—consisting of foods such as white flour, high sugar, processed meats, and few fruits and vegetables—is a risk factor for depression (Molendijk et al., 2018).

14. Lack of exercise

A sedentary lifestyle often leads to depression, while consistent exercise is a well-established antidepressant (aan het Rot et al., 2009).

15. Daily hassles

Finally, daily hassles also increase the risk for depression (Vinkers et al. 2014). These hassles can include things like having too much to do and too little time, car trouble, a flood in your basement, concerns about your weight, or worries about a family member.

Your risk for developing depression rises as you experience a greater number of these factors. Protect yourself during high-risk periods by applying these mind/body/spirit practices (adapted from Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).

Mind: Question the negative stories your thoughts tell you—for example, “I never do anything right,” or, “Nobody likes me.” Are they definitely true? Or is there a more accurate way of seeing things?

Body: Be sure you are doing fun and important activities every day. Research shows that consistent experiences of pleasure and mastery lift our moods (Stein et al., 2021).

Spirit: Finally, spend time each day connecting with yourself. Greet yourself first thing in the morning. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Make a vow not to abandon yourself in the rush and stress of your busy life. Stay really close to your experience.

Don’t hesitate to reach out for support to a loved one. If you need a therapist, talk with your doctor or search the Psychology Today directory.

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del-Pino-Casado, R., Rodriguez Cardosa, M., López-Martínez, C., & Orgeta, V. (2019). The association between subjective caregiver burden and depressive symptoms in carers of older relatives: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PloS One, 14, e0217648.

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Moriarty, A. S., Castleton, J., Gilbody, S., McMillan, D., Ali, S., Riley, R. D., & Chew-Graham, C. A. (2020). Predicting and preventing relapse of depression in primary care. British Journal of General Practice, 70, 54-55.

Moussavi, S., Chatterji, S., Verdes, E., Tandon, A., Patel, V., & Ustun, B. (2007). Depression, chronic diseases, and decrements in health: Results from the World Health Surveys. The Lancet, 370, 851-858.

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Stein, A. T., Carl, E., Cuijpers, P., Karyotaki, E., & Smits, J. A. (2021). Looking beyond depression: A meta-analysis of the effect of behavioral activation on depression, anxiety, and activation. Psychological Medicine, 51, 1491-1504.

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