Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Making Me Depressed?

Are you depressed but don’t know why?

Your depression may be due to past experiences you thought were inconsequential but were, in reality, traumatic for you.  You might be experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Or your depression may also be the result of other kinds of trauma that are less dramatic but no less painful.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs when people are exposed to an extreme external stressor, such as actual or threatened death, injury or sexual violence. You can also develop PTSD from witnessing a traumatic event.  

   PTSD often causes depression. The symptoms of PTSD-induced depression can include

  • Believing that what happened to you was your fault and that you should have prevented it
  • Restricting your activities in order to avoid being re-traumatized
  • Losing interest in things that once brought you pleasure
  • Being unable to experience positive emotions

How Do I Know If My Depression Is Due to PTSD?

If you’ve experienced an extremely stressful event and you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, the chances are good that your depression is the result of PTSD. Unfortunately, many people in our society experience these extremely stressful events.

However, in my experience, many depressed people who haven’t experienced an extremely stressful event feel confused about why they’re depressed. Over nearly thirty years of practice, countless people have come into my office saying something like, “No one physically or sexually abused me when I was growing up. No one was violent. Why am I feeling so depressed?” These people often feel they have no right to be depressed. They think they should be able to buck up and get on with their lives.

Why Does this Happen?

Many of these patients have experienced trauma. However, the trauma they’ve experienced is different from PTSD, at least in the sense in which I described it above. There are many types of trauma that aren’t as dramatic as death or violence but can lead people to feel very depressed. These kinds of trauma aren’t caused by extreme situations. They’re caused by more ordinary painful events. What makes these painful events traumatic, especially for children, is that their caretakers are unable to respond to their pain in an understanding way.

If a child is being bullied, for example, and her parents respond in an understanding way, the child will know that the bullying isn’t her fault. She and her parents will develop strategies for dealing with it. However, if her parents blame or ridicule her for being bullied, she’ll blame herself. She’ll believe there’s something wrong with her that’s causing the mistreatment. Once she starts to blame herself, the stage is set for her depression. As an adult, she may continue to blame herself because she doesn’t believe that a schoolyard bully and her parents’ lack of responsiveness could possibly be responsible for the way she feels about herself.

Are There Groups of People More Prone to Trauma-Related Depression?

People who grew up in responsive, attuned, empathic families, and were not exposed to extreme stressors, are much less likely to experience trauma-related depression. That is not the case, for people who grew up in families that exhibited a lack of emotional responsiveness on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, individuals in the latter group usually have no idea that their depression is caused by emotional trauma. They just think something is wrong with them.

What Happens When They Go to Therapy?

It usually takes people awhile to begin to make a connection between their early experiences and their current depression. In fact, when I ask them about their early family life, they’re often surprised. They think everything was fine—or, at least, not bad enough to have caused them any problems. However, as we make the connection between their early experience and their current suffering, they start to feel a sense of relief.

It was painful to recognize just how emotionally unresponsive their families were. Yet, it’s a relief to not have to continue to blame themselves for their depression. The more they’re able to have a relationship with an empathic and emotionally attuned therapist, the more they see what they were missing in childhood. They’re able to grieve what they didn’t get from their families. They can develop relationships with people who are more emotionally available. And, they’re able to experience a much richer emotional life. They no longer suppress feelings they fear will not be responded to by others.

Do You Have Any Suggestions?

The most important thing is to get help. It is vital to work with a therapist who knows how to treat trauma-related depression. She can help you find relief from your depression and the self-blame that accompanies it. You needn’t continue to suffer.

Click here to learn more about depression treatment with Jane Rubin, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist.

Jane Rubin, PhD., is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California. She works with individuals in Berkeley, Oakland, the East Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay area who are who are struggling with depression and anxiety. She also specializes in working with people who are trying to find meaning and direction in their lives.