Depression: Why Do People Keep Asking What Happened?

June 16, 2010 Natasha Tracy

Most people don’t understand depression or bipolar disorder. They ask: why are you depressed? When living with depression, you don’t need a reason. That's what they don't get.

I have had this exchange a thousand times,

“I’m really depressed.”
“Why, what happened?”

Have you been missing the plot?

Bipolars Get Depressed

Bipolar disorder is defined as the cycling of moods between a depression and a mania, or hypomania. It is not characterized by being cut off in traffic and then being depressed about it.

Depression Happens. Bipolar Disorder Doesn’t Need a Reason.

I do understand the confusion. For a normal person, emotions have causes. I say something hurtful to you, and you might feel hurt. Someone hits your car and runs, you might feel mad. You break up with your other, you might feel sad. I get that. They taught us the feeling faces in elementary school.

The problem is that for most people, few emotions fall outside this cause and effect. It’s true that people may not always be able to pinpoint the cause, but generally one exists. The only feelings falling outside of this paradigm are things like bad hair days.

Depression Is the Worst Hair Day of Your Life

So when I say to someone that nothing caused the depression, they have no frame of reference. Normal people don’t wake up feeling suicidal. Normal people don’t understand what it is to be crying for no other reason than it is 3:02pm. Or 4:07pm. Or 7:12am. People just can’t comprehend what causes an 180 degree mood swing in a matter of moments. They don’t believe it. They think it isn’t possible. They think I’m sneakily hiding the reason. They seem to think I’m lying to them.

Rest assured; I am not.

Why Do You Have a Cold?

It’s like getting a cold. You have no idea why you have a cold, or how you got it. But you have it. Suddenly. Without warning. You didn't do anything wrong. And now you’re stuck using up all your tissues and searching the cupboards for chicken soup.

Depression is like that: you don’t know why you have it, or how you got it. But you have it. Suddenly. Without warning. You didn't do anything wrong. And now you’re stuck using up all your tissues and searching the freezer for Ben and Jerry’s.

Bipolar Happened

No one asks you how you got the cold. They know it’s an illness. I wish people would remember that so is depression. I don’t know why I have it. It just appeared. There is no reason. Stop asking me what happened.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2010, June 16). Depression: Why Do People Keep Asking What Happened?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 19 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

April, 14 2016 at 1:27 am

Dear Natasha
Very very accurately drawn picture of "US" the sufferer.
At the age of 50 I am trying to complete my Ph.d in Computer Science which I hate.
I have worked for past 17 years.Wish I could work with an NGO because helping others heals me. Still trying to grab life.Blessed with a doctor husband and a handsome son.

May, 8 2013 at 8:17 am

I have been dealing with anxiety since I was little because when I was in school if I didn't do good my dad would yell. So every time he came home I was so scared. Now I'm having to deal with psoriasis in my head, my finger and toe nails, and a small spot on my back. Then since August of 2012 I've had knee problems and now my feet. I get so depressed because I can't so much and that I do stuff to make it better but it doesn't work. Back in nov my grandpa was dying of stage 4 brain cancer so me and some family members had to take care of my grandma that's disabled and she drove us nuts for 10 weeks. I lost my grandpa in jan, then my aunt in feb and then in march my fiancés grandpa. Ever since nov I have just been snapping and getting anger at everything and people. I'm always trying to blame something or someone else when more than likely its mine. I don't know what to do. I'm pushing away the love I my life away and other people. Help?

February, 26 2013 at 8:57 pm

I know this is an older blog. But I found it very informational for me in my current depressed state (mood). With the help of my therapist I have identified a couple of triggers that can bring on a depressed state for me. However, most of the time I can't identify anything that brought on my depressed mood. Depression is the worst part of bipolar illness for me. It robs me of my energy and makes me spiral down into dark negative thinking. For people who have the illness you know what types of negative thoughts I am talking about.
Before being diagnosed, I often spent months in a depressed state and never understood why. The worst part was that until my doctor diagnosed me as bipolar and not just depressed I was not on the correct meds to treat bipolar. On my current meds, my moods are more stable and the depressed and hypomanic states aren't as severe. However, I still have mood swings and spend more time depressed than euthymic or hypomanic.

May, 31 2012 at 2:05 pm

I know this was written a while back ago, but this really hit me. When I am having a depression episode I could never understand what was causing it (aside from the internal aspect) and it always made me so frustrated when my therapist would ask why and all I could say is that I dont know. Usually there would be absolutely no specific trigger that I could put my finger on. THANK YOU so much for writing this for others to see too.

Kyle B
May, 28 2012 at 2:36 pm

I wish I could get to the point of people asking. My family understands the depressive and somewhat manic sides and have learned that it does just happen and to try and deal w/ it until I find my way back. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen in the business arenna. They just see the difference and find ways (legal mind you) to have you dismissed. Families are easier to explain and have the understand, but how do you do this in the work environment? That is my true struggle, after being recently diagnosed. These blogs and informational websites are very helpful, but they can only go so far.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 25 2017 at 6:46 pm

I know this is a very late response, but I thought it was a good question that deserves an answer.
First of all, it's completely up to you whether you want to disclose your struggles with depression or any other disorder. Some feel uncomfortable for personal reasons and others fear discrimination. But when your symptoms start effecting your job performance it's a good time to reconsider the position.
Mental illness is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which affords you protection from discrimination and "reasonable accommodations." But these can't be enforced if an employer does not know you are clinically depressed.
I would suggest, after asking for a few minutes of their time and having an official documentation of your diagnosis, personalizing the following basic approach:
"Hi [Employer], I wanted to speak to you about my recent performance. I'm currently struggling with clinical depression (or you can be more vague), which I'm being treated for, and as I get better my performance will improve. However, I may require some accommodation while I recover. I'm still able to perform my duties, though I am having some difficulty with [insert issue(s) here]. It helps when [accommodations/environment/etc.]. If you have any questions or concerns about my diagnosis, please feel free to talk to me. If you see [specific scenario], you can [action]. I'm grateful to be a part of this team and wanted you to be aware of my circumstances so we can work together to keep things on track."
I would recommend speaking with HR or your union first if you think the conversation will be problematic, and to check in with your employer again in a few days to see where things stand.

Natasha Tracy
March, 1 2011 at 4:56 pm

Hi Snoopy,
I think many of us have sought valiantly for a cause to an emotion only to find that it doesn't exist (extrinsically).
Not that therapists are bad, because they're not, but they seem to have a burning need to track down sources that sometimes just aren't there.
"OCD can make you think someone doesn’t like you because of one tiny insignificant thing that happened the other day. And then you obsess over it."
I do that too. Not that I have OCD, but I do tend to be obsessive. It's unbelievable how awful it is to obsess over the tiniest thing and use it as an excuse to worry that someone "hates" you or is "mad" at you. Even when I know it isn't true.
Thanks for the comment.
- Natasha

February, 28 2011 at 3:24 pm

Amen. I totally understand, Sweetie.
I've had the reverse... wondering why am I mad/sad/depressed, and then hunting for a reason when the reason didn't exist. Or rather, the reason was in my head / due to PMS / due to OCD.
OCD can make you think something is unreasonably dirty. Contaminated. You focus on that contamination, when the problem isn't the germs, it's your own brain over-reacting to the perceived presence of germs.
OCD can make you think someone doesn't like you because of one tiny insignificant thing that happened the other day. And then you obsess over it.
Anyway, just wanted to say I understand. And that I won't ask you why you are depressed, lol. :)

Natasha Tracy
February, 9 2011 at 9:18 am

Hi Sabine,
As I've mentioned, depression isn't a chemical imbalance:…
It's considerably more complicated than that. Have we made progress? Yes, huge amounts. The first drug I took that worked was not being prescribed 15 years ago and now we know it's one of the best mood stabilizers with elevating effects for bipolar disorder. I understand the progress can't come fast enough for those with a mental illness, but it is coming.
(We actually know lots about the brain and depression as well:
Feel free to take medication or not, whatever works for you, but yes, our understanding improves every year.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
February, 9 2011 at 9:09 am

Hi Beverley,
"There is a reason why you are depressed, please don’t tell people there isn’t, this will only give them the impression that you are ‘feeling sorry for yourself’"
Well, that is exactly the point. I get depressed because I have a mental illness not for an extrinsic reason. It's intrinsic. That's the whole point.
As I said, it's the same as having a cold. You have a cold because there is a virus in your body. You have a depression because there is something wrong with your brain. But in neither case is their necessarily an extrinsic factor.
- Natasha

Sabine Gaudriller
February, 9 2011 at 2:02 am

Bonjour from France,
From mood swings to bi-polar (previously manic-depressive) we face the same sens of loss of control over ourselves. And this is freaky, very unpleasant (euphemism) for us and the ones around -if any.
It is such a psychologically/socially crippling handicap that, combined with aggravating factors, it has left me almost all alone.
I have been told, as Berveley puts it, that we are dealing with chemical imbalance(s). But NOT one of the various and numerous drugs the psy-this or that prescribed me (while living in New Zealand, then in Belgium and now in France, my native country) worked whatsoever. No miracle there. The true miracle is that I am still "sane".
Could you tell me how the brain chemical levels are determinated and idientified (tests, exams, blood sample analysis ...) and if they can be efficiently rectified ? Have we made progress in the past 15 years ?
I was telling a friend that, when things go bad, it's like having the baby blues and I do beleive that it is very much like that dreaful postnatal experience or pregnancy "state"- which induce shocking mood swings (dejection/elation, kindness/spitefulness, warmth/wrath) and floods of tears....
I have just gone a month or so without any medication, taking only Rescue Remedy. I feel OK, but how do I know if it's a progress or a respite. Well, at least I'm in a frame of mind such that don't worry about the next possible (probable ?) relapse.
Friendly thoughts from across the Atlantic.
Can I ask if some of you have had dealings with Narcissists ? My daughter is "under influence"...Part of growing-up I guess.

February, 7 2011 at 8:58 am

There is a reason why you are depressed, please don't tell people there isn't, this will only give them the impression that you are 'feeling sorry for yourself', when you are most definitely not. As my doctor says, depression and other mental illnesses lead to more suicides than any other disease, so to say there is no reason diminishes those who are so desperate they choose death over living with their mental illness.
The reason is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Just as the reason for diabetes is a chemical imbalance in the body. I have found that explanation satisfies more 'normal' people than saying there is no reason.
I know when my depression started my husband used to ask 'why are you crying?' I would say I didn't know. Now I do know and I can tell people that the four medications I take give me the ability to live the 'normal' life that they live. But that it doesn't always work and sometimes I have days or weeks that the depression comes back. The major anxiety disorder is there on waking every morning and if I don't take my meds will continue all day, until I finally clue in and take it.
The one time my doctor suggested I start to wean myself off some of my meds I immediately went into a major panic attack. I need my meds every bit as much as diabetics, epileptics, and MS sufferers need their meds.
Be kind to yourselves, you are worth it.

Natasha Tracy
January, 17 2011 at 2:12 pm

Hi Diane,
Glad you could identify. Thanks.
- Natasha

diane bluegreen
January, 17 2011 at 10:05 am

you just explained my working life for much of the past few years. i tried to explain it to people,but they just didnt get it. "but you're so cheerful'. yes,i use it all up at work. thanks for writing this! diane

Natasha Tracy
October, 2 2010 at 8:01 am

Yes, I've spent lots of time thinking about causes too.
I agree, enjoy the good times.
- Natasha

October, 2 2010 at 12:00 am

For the win (as the kids say)! Thanks for writing this. I too have wracked my brain trying to figure out what happened.
Eventually, a former friend and I came to the conclusion that we should just enjoy the "happiness" no questions asked; we knew the clock was ticking and that our depressive moods were inevitable.

Natasha Tracy
June, 29 2010 at 6:11 am

I didn't mean to suggest that depression was as mild as a cold, just that it's not the fault of the person who got it. Finding a metaphor that encompasses all of mental illness is extremely challenging.
I think we all look for the magical reason so that we can fix it, so that we can fix ourselves. Unfortunately, for so many of us the reason just doesn't exist.
And yes, I've had episodes having work and not having it. Super-fun.
- Natasha

June, 29 2010 at 2:57 am

I wish depression was just like a cold. I wish it was a mere inconvenience that went away in a week. I was thinking about this the other day, trying to compare depression to other illnesses I have experienced. Nothing compares, though. Depression is more than just being sick. Even my migraines were more bearable - although they did only last a day. Really, the most sick I've been was having chicken pox, which kind of compares because I couldn't go anywhere or do anything, and I ended up getting depressed anyway.
I also tend to try to attribute my depression to something. Recently it's been the house I'm living in and my dwindling social life. It used to be my job. But, as it turns out, I get depressed when I have a job and I get depressed when I'm unemployed. Both are probably triggers, but there's no way of escaping that conundrum!

Natasha Tracy
June, 26 2010 at 2:04 pm

Jennifer, thank-you.
Wendy, I'm happy to make the crazy feel more normal. We need it. Be gentle with yourself.
- Natasha

Wendy S.
June, 26 2010 at 9:29 am

I keep critiquing myself, (I have BP II) that if only I ate or didn't eat this (esp. sugar) I wouldn't be feeling so emotionally messed up, or if I hadn't watched this movie or tv show, and why can't I do this or why didn't do this, the list goes on and on. Thank you for making me feel more normal, whatever that is and less guilty that yeah, like diabetes or having a cold, the best that I can do is take my meds., go to therapy, be around people who I genuinely enjoy, etc...I'll survive. Some days, I'll do this better than others.

Jennifer Johnson
June, 23 2010 at 2:52 pm

Sometimes, I think when people ask "what happened" it's because so many love hearing about someone else's sadness or 'bad news.' It's not like they are concerned or even really care.
Others, of course, assume that something terrible must have happened for a person to feel so depressed. Natasha you have written this perfectly and pointed out we don't need a trigger.

Natasha Tracy
June, 20 2010 at 11:52 am

Hi Richard,
Thanks. Yeah, good days, are, well, good.
- Natasha

Richard J.
June, 20 2010 at 11:41 am

I really like your posts. You are good. I'm feeling a bit on the depression side right now, Keeping track of triggers is sometimes i't own challange let alone cycles tripping over each other. Even intellectual folks go huh. On days when we feel good people we need to let us have that moment. We are human, that is as normal as it gets.

June, 19 2010 at 3:22 pm

I have to say THANK YOU! for someone who is FINALLY getting help, i am tired of having to find a reason for it..i KNOW it just happens but others do not seem to realize it. There is no abuse, or situation that caused me to turn out this way....i have been this way for as long as i can remember.
thank for putting this out there, now if only others would read and understand!

Natasha Tracy
June, 17 2010 at 7:19 pm

Kansas -
I have been in that cycle so many times, although mostly in the early years. And therapists had me so convinced there was a reason I was looking under every rock I found.
I think it's important to track triggers, but I think it's equally important to admit when there just isn't one. It can "make you crazy" (you know, if you will) trying to pin down the nonexistent. Funny how no one mentions _that_ in therapy.
- Natasha

June, 17 2010 at 7:00 pm

I'm bipolar, know I'm bipolar, yet somehow think I should be "normal". Even in my worst depressions, in my mind, I try to attach my depression to ANYTHING! My mind will work overtime thinking of what caused it, all the while I know there is not a reason. But my brain won't comprehend that. I think it's because I'm fat, because someone got a promotion I wanted, because I'm not loved, ANYTHING! You're right, there was nothing that happened to cause it, but I never can get my brain to accept that. It constantly searches for the "trigger", and I always seem to convince myself I've found one, although I know it's not true. A "normal" person would not get that depressed over something so trivial.

Natasha Tracy
June, 17 2010 at 8:13 am

Theresa, you know, you're right, professionals do this too. Therapists are always looking for a "deeper meaning" when, quite frankly, just like with colds, one simply does not exists.

Laura Collins
June, 17 2010 at 7:36 am

So very glad you addressed this! If mental illness was just a matter of the circumstances of our lives it would be simpler, I guess, but it just isn't. Illness doesn't need a metaphor or reason or justification. Treatment and self-care shouldn't require a "reason" either!

June, 17 2010 at 7:04 am

Oh my Gosh thank you for saying it, I wish people, even therapists understood that alot of times nothing brought on or triggered it, that depression just happens!

Natasha Tracy
June, 17 2010 at 4:48 am

Yeah, I guess it's not the nicest thing to say, but glad to hear that it resonates.

June, 17 2010 at 1:21 am

Bugger and damn...thanks for posting this. Somebody just had to say it. I'm so fed up with people asking me 'Whaaat happened?'

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