The Up Side of Depression?

One of the pitfalls of modern life is depression.  According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. In 2014, around 15.7 million adults age 18 or older in the U.S. had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, which represented 6.7 percent of all American adults.” (https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression.)  Major depression is very expensive, both in terms of medication purchased and time lost; depression subtracts the most years from American lives and accounts for the most years lived with disability of any mental or behavioral disorder.  So could there be anything positive about this disease?

In a recent feature for Nautilus, Matthew Hutson profiles researchers who think depression can serve a positive purpose in the context of evolution.  In other words, in some circumstances, depression may lead to insights and personal meaning.  This in no way minimizes the suffering that depression can cause.  Rather, it suggests the uses it may serve.

Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Canada, is one of these researchers.  He argues depression may be “an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.”  People who are depressed ruminate frequently, and they get more REM sleep, a phase associated with memory consolidation.  He thinks this reflects an evolutionary design that, as Hutson summarizes, “pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the one underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.”  For example, a “failed” relationship. The depressive episode is a sort of altered state, one different from daily life, that’s supposed to get you to pay attention to whatever wounding led to the upset.  In a 61-person study of depression, 80 percent found that they perceived some benefit from rumination, mostly in assessing problems and preventing future mistakes.

For now, Andrews’s “analytical rumination hypothesis” is just a concept or observation to lead to further inquiry.  Still, there is something very powerful in reconceptualizing (some) depressive episodes as having a function.  Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, has spent a couple decades studying people’s experiences of meaning in life, and she said in an interview that the meaning people derive from difficult experiences depends not on the amount they’re suffered, but the extent of reflection — or meaning-making — on what prompted a low point.  Following this logic, if the job of a depressive episode is to figure out what’s gone wrong, then antidepressants are an incomplete treatment.

There are even larger issues at work here: If the healing of depression requires a reworking of patterns within a person’s psychology, that’s a subjective rather than objective process, meaning that the scientific method may have trouble figuring it out.  Since it’s not objective, it’s perceived as less real or true.  Also, therapy — whether cognitive behavioral or psychoanalytic — requires lots of money and lots of time and is not well-supported by insurance companies.

Still, thinking of depression as a space for reflection is empowering.  Like anxiety, depression might be trying to tell you something.  Since it is subjective, the problems and solutions will be personal — of the person and their psychological history — and thus need the understanding of the sufferer, perhaps with the assistance of a therapist.  That’s another theme: While disengagement from emotions characterizes depression, engagement with one’s inner world could be the way out.  In other words, you exit through the wound.

As Vanderbilt psychologist Steven Hollon says, “Most episodes of depression end on their own — something known as spontaneous remission.”   Perhaps depression-as-adaptation explains why.

Read the complete article at http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/a-new-way-to-understand-and-treat-depression.html? .  The photo came from that website.

 

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