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, in economics

depression, in economics, period of economic crisis in commerce, finance, and industry, characterized by falling prices, restriction of credit, low output and investment, numerous bankruptcies, and a high level of unemployment. A less severe crisis is usually known as a recession, a more common occurance generally thought to be a normal part of the business cycle; it is traditionally defined as as two consecutive quarterly declines in the gross national product. Recessions mark a downward swing in the curve of the business cycle and are caused by a disequilibrium between the quantity of goods produced and the consumers' ability to purchase. If a recession continues long enough, it can turn into a depression. Neither term has ever been distinctly defined by a set of criteria, however, so it is difficult to say at what point the two merge, but some statistics regarded by economists as indicative of a depression include a 10% decrease in per-capita gross domestic product and consumption and 10% unemployment that persists for at least 24 months. A short period in which fear takes hold of companies and investors is more properly called a panic and does not necessarily occur in every depression, but lack of confidence in business is always present in an economic downturn.

A depression develops when overproduction, decreased demand, or a combination of both factors forces curtailment of production, dismissal of employees, and wage cuts. Unemployment and lowered wages further decrease purchasing power, causing the crisis to spread and become more acute. Recovery is generally slow, the return of business confidence being dependent on the development of new markets, exhaustion of the existing stock of goods, or, in some cases, remedial action by governments. Depressions and recessions today tend to become worldwide in scope because of the international nature of trade and credit.

Insufficient numbers of profitable investment outlets, overexpansion of commerce, industry, or agriculture, a stock-market crash, the failure of a great banking or industrial firm, or war may be among the precipitating factors of a downturn. In antiquity, and even up to the 18th cent., depressions had chiefly noneconomic causes, such as wars and weather-induced crop failures. From c.1700 to 1825 economic crises were in the main speculative or commercial; since 1825 they have been increasingly industrial, although the Japanese recessions of the 1990s were caused in part by reduced consumer demand.

The economic crises of the 20th cent. saw the entry of governments into large areas of the economy that had previously been in private hands. Job reeducation programs, government employment of the previously unemployed, and increased public welfare responsibilities are among the programs adopted to alleviate depressions. Moreover, by applying Keynesian economic principles to public policy, governments have sought to affect the business cycle directly and prevent depressions. Large-scale public works expenditure (pump priming), tax cuts, interest rate adjustments, and deficit spending during recession are among the measures that have been taken to reduce the severity of periodic economic downturns such as those experienced in the United States in 1982 and internationally in the early 1990s and 2000s. In the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble that began in 2007, the uncertainties associated with mortgage-related securities and other financial instruments that had pervaded the international financial system undermined or threatened a wide range of financial institutions, leading in 2008 to unprecedented measures by the Federal Reserve in an attempt to avoid a financial collapse and depression. Nonetheless, the resulting financial crisis and recession was the worst in the United States since the 1980s and also severely affected many other nations.

See also Great Depression.


See M. Bernstein, The Great Depression (1987); C. P. Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929–1939 (rev. ed. 1986) and Manias, Panics, and Crashes (rev. ed. 1989); W. C. Mitchell, Business Cycles and Their Causes (1989); A. W. Mullineux, Business Cycles and Financial Crises 1990).


, in psychiatry

depression, in psychiatry, a symptom of mood disorder characterized by intense feelings of loss, sadness, hopelessness, failure, and rejection. The two major types of mood disorder are unipolar disorder, also called major depression, and bipolar disorder, whose sufferers are termed manic-depressive (see bipolar disorder). Other types of depression are recognized, with characteristics similar to the major mood disorders, but not as severe: they are adjustment disorder with depression, dysthymic disorder, and cyclothymic disorder.

Close to 20% of Americans are likely to suffer major depression at some time, and women tend to be more susceptible to the disorder than men. Major depression is likely to interfere significantly with everyday activity, with symptoms including insomnia, irritability, weight loss, and a lack of interest in outside events. The disorder may last several months or longer—and may recur—but it is generally reversible in the short run.

Bipolar disorder is much rarer, affecting only about 1% of the U.S. population; women and men tend to be equally susceptible. Its sufferers alternate between states of depression—similar to that which is experienced in unipolar disorder—and mania, which is characterized by intense euphoria and frenetic activity. Bipolar disorders are often interspersed with periods of relatively normal behavior, which may last for long periods of time between episodes of depression or mania. Manic-depressives have an extremely high rate of suicide, and episodes of the disorder tend to recur.

Medical evidence suggests that depressive states may be connected to deficiencies in the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin. Drug therapy includes various antidepressants that act on the flow of neurotransmitters and lithium for bipolar disorder (antidepressants can cause mania when used to treat depression in bipolar patients). There also has been success with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for major depression.

In recent years, theorists have argued that many depressed individuals depend upon others for their self-esteem, and that the loss of one of these emotional supports often precipitates a depressive reaction. A number of psychologists contend instead that depression is a result of learned helplessness, which occurs when a person determines through experience that his actions are useless in making positive changes. Other theorists have shown that genetic factors play a role in depression.


See L. Wolpert, Malignant Madness (2000).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


  1. (PSYCHOLOGY) a mood state characterized by despondency and pessimism, which may be short-lived but in its persistent forms may have its source in NEUROSIS or PSYCHOSIS. A further distinction is between reactive (to external stress) and endogenous forms.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


For many people the Christmas blues lurk right below the festive reds and greens of the holiday season. According to one national poll, about twenty-five percent of all Americans confessed to feeling sad around Christmas time.

Unrealistic Expectations

Our culture bombards us with the message that the Christmas season is the happiest time of year, a time for festive parties, loving family get-togethers, lavish gift giving, and constant good cheer. These high emotional, social, and material expectations set us up to be disappointed. Many people find it difficult to fulfill the cultural ideal of non-stop Christmas conviviality. This ideal may easily defeat people with difficult family situations, those who lost a loved one during a previous holiday season, the socially isolated, and those estranged or far away from their families. This failure to meet cultural expectations, along with the belief that "everyone else is having a good time," can result in depression.

High material expectations for the holiday may pose similar problems, especially for those on limited budgets (see also Commercialism). So great are the pressures to buy that some people bring financial hardship on themselves by spending more then they can really afford on holiday preparations and gifts. The resulting stress may open the door to depression.

Even those who can afford to participate fully in the gift giving, decorating, cooking, eating, drinking, and partygoing may sink into holiday season sadness, however. Stress and exhaustion brought on by an endless whirl of activities as well as overindulgence in food and drink also contribute to feelings of depression. Women may be particularly prone to this syndrome, as our culture assigns them the primary responsibility for shopping, cooking, decorating, and creating "special" family celebrations.


Therapists advise those with a tendency to suffer from this form of Christmas season sadness to discard their unrealistic expectations of the holidays. Often these spring from childhood nostalgia and romantic images promoted in the media rather than from a realistic assessment of one's own wishes, needs, limitations, and personal circumstances. In spite of our dreams of instant holiday happiness, these limitations and circumstances seldom vanish underneath the tinsel and colored lights of the Christmas season. Moreover, the stress of holiday preparations, travel, and family visits may aggravate whatever tensions exist in any of these areas. To avoid resentments bred by overwork, psychologists suggest that those saddled with organizing and hosting holiday celebrations delegate responsibilities to others.

Psychologists point out that family tensions that simmer below the surface during the rest of the year very often boil over when the family gathers together for the holidays. Although many people feel that family fights "ruin" holiday get-togethers, it may be more realistic to assume that if family members quarrel during the rest of the year, they will quarrel on Christmas.

Psychologists also recommend giving oneself, others, and the occasion permission to be less than perfect. They remind us that although the dynamic of family get-togethers often encourages everyone to assume old family roles, we may choose otherwise. Although we may make these choices for ourselves, psychologists counsel us to avoid using Christmas celebrations as a forum for changing family relationships. They point out, for example, that challenging Auntie May about her drinking is likely to lead to a confrontation, and that attempting to squeeze a year's worth of "quality time" with family members into a single holiday is doomed to failure.

Those who have experienced the loss of a loved one in the past year need to accept their current mental, emotional, and physical limits and openly acknowledge that this year's celebrations will be different. Counselors also recommend that those who grieve take time to evaluate which social obligations, family traditions, and religious observances will comfort and strengthen them, and which could overwhelm them. They also suggest that mourners seek the company of comforting people and make occasions to talk about their loved one. It may be best to plan provisionally and be prepared to alter arrangements as necessary to suit one's needs.

Christmas Suicides

It is widely believed that the rate of suicides increases during the holiday period. Although many Americans admit to feeling sad during the holiday season, studies reveal that the suicide rate does not increase around Christmas time.

Winter Weather

The winter weather itself plunges some people into depression. S.A.D., seasonal affective disorder, causes its sufferers to become depressed during the dark days of winter that coincide with the holiday season in the Northern Hemisphere. Christmas, New Year's Day, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and Kwanzaa all cluster around the time of the winter solstice. At this time of year, the days are short, the sunlight weak, the skies often overcast, and the nights long. People suffering from S.A.D. react strongly to the lack of light, falling into states of lethargy and depression that last for months. Other symptoms may include increased appetite, an excessive desire for sleep, irritability, anxiety, decreasing self-esteem, and difficulty concentrating.

Experts estimate that about six percent of all Americans exhibit symptoms of full-blown S.A.D. About fourteen percent suffer from a milder version of these symptoms known informally as the "winter blues." Some psychologists claim that among S.A.D. patients, women outnumber men by a four-to-one ratio. Others point out, however, that these figures may be somewhat skewed since men have more difficulty than do women in admitting to mood-related problems.

In the Northern Hemisphere the incidence of S.A.D. increases as one travels northward because the northern latitudes enjoy fewer winter daylight hours. Researchers have discovered that about 28 percent of the population of Fairbanks, Alaska, suffers to some degree from S.A.D. The city of Tromsø, Norway, lies 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. There the sun sets in November and inhabitants endure midwinter darkness until day breaks again in late January. The people of Tromsø refer to this period as the mørketiden, or "murky time." Each year the mørketiden ushers in an increase in the incidence of physical and mental illness, domestic violence, alcoholism and other forms of drug abuse, arrests, suicides, and poor school performance. Like the inhabitants of many other towns in northern Norway, the people of Tromsø observe a joyous yearly festival, "Sun Day," on the day the sun returns.

If you suspect you may be suffering from S.A.D., seek professional diagnosis and treatment. Many people affected by S.A.D. have found relief in light therapy treatments, medication, changes in diet, or other lifestyle alterations.

Further Reading

Marano, Hara Estroff. "Surviving Holiday Hell." Psychology Today 31, 6 (November-December 1998): 32-36. Peters, Celeste A. Don't Be SAD. Calgary, Canada: Script Publishing, 1994. Robinson, Jo, and Jean Coppock Staeheli. Unplug the Christmas Machine. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1982. Rosenthal, Norman E. Winter Blues. New York: Guilford Press, 1993. Smith, Harold Ivan. A Decembered Grief: Living with Loss While Others AreCelebrating. Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1999. Whybrow, Peter, and Robert Bahr. The Hibernation Response. New York: Arbor House, William Morrow, 1988.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In traditional astrology, depression is an alternate term for fall.

The Astrology Book, Second Edition © 2003 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(of the snow line), the amount of lowering of the snow line during climatic cooling caused by a drop in summer or mean annual temperatures and by an increase in solid precipitation. During ice ages, depression was accompanied by an increase in glaciation of mountain areas and by continental glaciation. Maximum depression of the snow line in the high latitudes may reach the level of the world ocean. The depression of the snow line is determined primarily by the elevation of relict cirques situated lower than the present snow line.



(1) In geomorphology, any lowering of the earth’s surface; in the narrow sense it is a trough or basin lying below sea level. Depressions may be dry (for example, the Turfan depression) or filled with water (the Caspian Sea).

(2) Tectonic depression, an area of downwarping of the earth’s crust that is completely or partially filled with precipitation (for example, the Tadzhik depression in Middle Asia).



in medicine, a pathological state of melancholy, dejection, and inescapable despair, characteristic of a number of mental illnesses.

Depression often arises as a reaction to a difficult life situation, in many mental illnesses (manic-depressive psychosis, schizophrenia), in neuroses, with the prolonged use of certain medications (for example, chlorpromazine), and in physical illnesses. Depression must be distinguished from the natural (physiological) reaction of a person to unpleasant experiences, life failures, and psychic traumas. Depression is manifested by ideational, emotional, and motor inhibition (sometimes by inhibition of only one or two of the above areas of psychological activity). In serious cases it is manifested by delusions of persecution (the patient thinks he is being accused or blamed for poor work or unethical behavior) or by self-condemnation and self-deprecation (the patient accuses himself of dishonesty, poor work, and misdeameanors, regards himself as guilty for the destruction of his family, the collective, or the whole world) and by hypochondria (he feels that terrible changes have occurred in his internal organs, as a result of which he will forever ail and suffer). Treatment of patients with severe depression is conducted in psychiatric hospitals, since the patients are often persistently suicidal and self-destructive, and therefore require daily surveillance, which can be accomplished only in special medical institutions. Depression is treated with psychotropic (antidepressive) drugs, electroconvulsive therapy, and psychotherapy.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A hollow of any size on a plain surface having no natural outlet for surface drainage.
A structurally low area in the crust of the earth.
An area of low pressure; usually applied to a certain stage in the development of a tropical cyclone, to migratory lows and troughs, and to upper-level lows and troughs that are only weakly developed. Also known as low.
A mood provoked by conscious awareness of an idea or feeling that was previously pushed into the unconscious.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


depressionclick for a larger image
Various stages in the development of depression.
A depression as marked on synoptic charts.
i. The angular distance of a body below the horizon. The term generally refers to a radar beam.
ii. A region of relatively low barometric pressure. The term depression is usually applied to a certain stage in the development of a tropical cyclone, but it also applies to migratory lows and troughs and to upper air lows and troughs that are only weakly developed.
iii. The amount the gun-sight datum is depressed to allow for the effects of gravity on a weapon during its travel to the target. It is expressed in degrees or milliradians.
iv. A negative altitude.
An Illustrated Dictionary of Aviation Copyright © 2005 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


1. a mental disorder characterized by extreme gloom, feelings of inadequacy, and inability to concentrate
2. Pathol an abnormal lowering of the rate of any physiological activity or function, such as respiration
3. an economic condition characterized by substantial and protracted unemployment, low output and investment, etc.; slump
4. Meteorol a large body of rotating and rising air below normal atmospheric pressure, which often brings rain
5. (esp in surveying and astronomy) the angular distance of an object, celestial body, etc., below the horizontal plane through the point of observation


History the worldwide economic depression of the early 1930s, when there was mass unemployment
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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