No one talks about the benefits of depression, do they? No one talks about how depression might happen for a good reason.
Most people assume it’s nothing but a bad thing. A product of low courage. A cancer of the mind.
And perhaps it is?
When you examine depression on paper, it’s difficult to argue otherwise. I mean, I hardly need to outline the costs associated with depression, do I?
But this got me thinking, given how costly depression clearly is, why do so many people suffer from it?
I mean, if there truly is no upshot, then why has evolution not weeded it out? If it is a malfunction then why isn’t it far rarer, like other emotional disorders?
Why do somewhere between 30 to 50% of the population suffer from a significant bout of depression at some point in their lives?
Honestly, I never considered these questions before. Despite suffering from depression for over a decade, I just assumed something was wrong with me.
A malfunction akin to a broken spirit.
But then I read this article in Scientific America. What I found blew my mind wide open.
The Purpose of Depression
Without wanting to bore you too much, some researchers did a bunch of tests on some poor little rodents examining a particular receptor in the brain that binds to serotonin (the molecule that is the target of most anti-depressant drugs).
What these scientists found was that the composition of the functional part of this receptor was 99% similar to that of humans, suggesting that natural selection had preserved it for a good reason.
Put another way; depression is an adaptation not a malfunction. It serves an important function.
The million-dollar question is what the fuck?
I mean, what function could depression possibly serve to justify the heavy costs? What on earth, may I ask, is so useful about depression?
Here’s where it gets really interesting.
A primary symptom of depression is rumination. Depressed people often think intensely about their own problems — they have difficulty thinking about anything else. (Welcome to my hell.)
Studies have shown this kind of thinking is highly analytical. When faced with a complex problem, this can actaully be a helpful response.
After doing a little more research into this topic I found that depressed individuals:
- process information more deeply.
- are more accurate at complex tasks.
- make better judgments on detail-oriented information.
- make more accurate cost-benefit analyses.
It turns out that depression may well be designed to help solve complex problems.
Depression Helps You Solve Complex Problems
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s worth shouting from the rooftops!
If this theory is correct — should you happen to suffer from depression — we can immediately clarify two things.
- Either you have an actual problem that needs to be solved,
- or you believe you do.
The former means you have to figure out a solution to this problem (and then solve it).
The latter means you need to figure out what false belief is driving your depression and then go about changing it.
Happily for you — unhappily for me — I’ve experienced depression for both reasons.
I just assumed it was low self-esteem crawling out of the woodwork again. But after several therapy sessions, my therapist told me it was her professional opinion that I have a healthy self-esteem.
I was glad to hear it, but it completely threw me. If my depression wasn’t related to low self-esteem, what on earth was going on?
After reading this article, the proverbial apple smacked me over the head.
My mind simply wanted clarity.
It wanted to know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It was telling me to sort this out as a matter of urgency.
Now, you could argue even this was a perceived problem rather than an actual crisis. However, divorcing from a 12-year career was bound to throw me into something of a depression.
Indeed depression typically follows significant life changes. Think about the loss of a loved one or postpartum depression.
The mistake people make for this reason is assuming that depression is a kind of sadness.
But that’s wrong.
Depression is related to the problem posed. How am I going to provide for this newborn? How am I going to navigate this world without my life partner?
Depression is nature’s way of telling you you have a complex problem the mind is intent on solving.
Why This Understanding is So Important
Why is this understanding so damn important?
Think about this.
Most clinicians/researchers believe that depressive rumination is part of the problem — that you can’t quote, “can’t think yourself out of an emotional problem.”
But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if depression isn’t an emotional problem, fundamentally, but a problem-solving problem?
What if thinking your way out of depression is exactly what you’re supposed to do?
Now consider this.
If depressive rumination were genuinely harmful, interventions that encourage deep thinking should cause depressive symptoms to worsen.
But the opposite is true.
Indeed carefully writing about oneself is linked to all sorts of health benefits.
If this is correct, then therapies should encourage depressive rumination rather than papering the cracks by subscribing anti-depressants.
It might well be the case that the modern mental health crisis is a product of us all having become weaker thinkers.
Instead of engaging in some deep thinking when our mind is telling us to do so, we are drowning ourselves in a sea of distraction.
Something to Think About
I should finish by adding a few important caveats.
- First and foremost, this is but one theory. When it comes to depression, there are numerous. This is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle.
- Second, for specific individuals, depression may well be an emotional problem or malfunction. It’s a complex beast, after all.
- Finally, most importantly, I’m not a mental healthcare professional. (At least not yet.) I’m simply sharing my thoughts based on some research I’ve done.
If you’re reading this thinking, “Well, duh? Didn’t you know this already?”
I would say, fair enough. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’m last to the party. However, I strongly suspect I’m not alone in my ignorance.
If you weren’t aware that depression is, in fact, a normal response for the majority of people, well, that’s definitely something worth thinking about.
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