Depression as an adaptation?

February 8, 2012 | By | 6 Replies More

For anyone who has been depressed, it is difficult to conceive of depression as something ever useful. Depression immobilizes people, and the core symptom is anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure.  From the perspective of depressed people, these add up to a living hell.   The World Health Organization estimates that depression is the fourth leading cause of disability in the world, and that it is projected to become the second leading cause of disability. I recently finished watching a “Great Courses” video lecture series called “Stress and Your Body,”  featuring Robert Sapolsky, who described the strong correlation between stress and depression.  He indicated that lack of outlets, lack of social support and the perception that things are worsening are precursors to depression.

In an article titled “Is Depression an Adaptation?” psychiatrist Randolf Nesse terms depression “one of humanity’s most serious medial problems.”  Nesse also argues, however, that many instances of depression are actually adaptive. How could this possibly be? Nesse explains:

It is easy to see how lack of motivation for one activity could free effort for something more productive, but depression is characterized by a more pervasive pessimism, low self-esteem, and reduced initiative. These characteristics pose the core conundrum of depression. They are the exact opposite of the optimism, energy, and a willingness to make changes that would help a person get out of a bad situation. However, there are situations in which active efforts just make things worse. One . . . is when challenging a dominant figure starts fights that cannot be won. In this situation, it is far better to inhibit striving and signal submission and a wish for reconciliation. Another situation is the failure of a major life enterprise. The pursuit of large goals requires constructing expensive social enterprises that are difficult to replace—marriages, friendships, careers, reputation, status, and group memberships. Major setbacks in these enterprises precipitate life crises. In such situations, it is often useful to inhibit any tendency to shift quickly to a different endeavor. The start-up costs for a new enterprise are huge, there is often no certainty that another enterprise can be found at all, and the attractiveness of alternatives may be illusory. Hastily giving up on an unsatisfying marriage or job often takes a person out of the frying pan and into the fire. In this situation, pessimism, lack of energy, low self-esteem, lack of initiative, and fearfulness can prevent calamity even while they perpetuate misery. There are also many other kinds of unpropitious situations, such as lacking a viable life plan or some crucial resource or being so stressed that striving would cause bodily damage. Just as anxiety inhibits dangerous actions, depression inhibits futile efforts.

Image by RushonPhotography ( with permission

. . . When depression is . . . seen as a state shaped to cope with unpropitious situations, it is clear how it could be useful, both to decrease investment in the current unsatisfying life enterprise and also to prevent the premature pursuit of alternatives. Failure to disengage can cause depression, and depression can make it harder to disengage. This may explain why the low-mood system is so prone to getting stuck in positive feedback loops. Mood dysregulation may now be so prevalent because we are bereft of kin, beliefs, and rituals that routinely extracted our ancestors from such cycles. Also, the costs of low mood may be small compared with those of inappropriate high mood, so in certain situations the “smoke detector principle” biases the system toward low mood.

Usually, the dilemma is resolved by changing or accepting the current situation or by moving on. When it is not, serious pathology may arise. The argument in this article has so far been presented in the cold quasieconomic terms of behavioral ecology. However, for most people the resources at issue are relationships that are mediated not by calculated reciprocity, but by powerful emotional commitments. To break such commitments and turn energies elsewhere is far different from just moving to a different foraging patch.

Nesse also points out that the high prevalence of depression suggests that it sometimes has adaptive value:

The epidemiology of mood disorders offers other clues. If depression were rare, like schizophrenia, and had symptoms unrelated to the experiences of most people, this would suggest it was a disease unrelated to any defense. In fact, major depressive disorder affects about 10% of the US population in a year. Depressive syndromes that do not meet diagnostic criteria are even more common. Furthermore, there is no point of rarity in the distribution that can differentiate pathologic from nonpathologic depression, and subjects move frequently between syndromal and subthreshold depression over time. Also, the incidence of depression is highest at the ages where reproductive value peaks, a pattern characteristic of few diseases.


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Category: Health, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Tony says:

    It is my view that depression is a organic condition, that has an effect on mental processes and hampers the ability to cope with stress.
    Just one thing I recently found:
    I have read that some people do research into depression and see it as some sort of inflammation of the brain. (but I don’t have web-links at hand)

    From personal experience, there is nothing adaptive about depression. If you sit on your sofa, just thinking almost every day that you want to kill yourself, don’t want to talk even to friends, it impedes every impulse to do something, you don’t go outside, when the suicide fantasies grow worse and worse, then there is nothing somehow adaptive about depression.

    And secondly from my personal experience, my depression went away (practically completely) after a diet change in November 2010 and I am depression free since then. Before that, I had depression for over 2 decades, which gradually grew worse. I blame grain products, but I have no proof or evidence for it. Surely there are other factor that could/might play into the etiology of depression (e.g. genome, gut biome, pathogens) and then stress as a trigger, but I am convinced that depression is an organic illness. Adaptation as an explanation seems like an quite helpless attempt to deal with a situation where the etiology is anything but firmly established.

    Just my personal anecdote, not worth more than $0.02 probably, as there could be different forms of depression out there.

  2. Tony says:

    And oh, I forgot: When I was deeply suicidally depressed, I realized that there is no actual reason to be depressed, the the depression was completely without a cause that would lie somewhere in the relation with other people, that there were people out there I could talk to, it didn’t help. Not a bit.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tony: Thanks for writing, and such a good thing that you pulled out of that depression. Nesse makes clear that many instances of depression involve feedback loops that cause the depression to be chronic and therefore dangerous. Nor is he suggesting that there aren’t chemical-biological correlates to depression.

  3. Karl says:

    Much depression certainly has its roots in how the individual is not able to come to a resolution of conflicts within their own thought and beliefs. When logical deduction fails to return healthy feedback between the interwoven nested loops of one’s perceived reality, either depression or anti-social activities can be the result.

    Prolonged failure to realize and understand that inductive beliefs that cause repeated conflicts means they are improperly assigned an improper value or significance to their life. Some people place too much value on these inductive beliefs, others not enough.

    Most people mentally associate “God” with or as the source of their value judgements, but this is only just one aspect of the human conscience.

    Many who want the quick fix simply state their conscience is faulty when they throw off any values other than the ones they are comfortable with. Thus they end up making choices accordingly.

  4. Tony is right. Severe depression has physical causes.

    There’s depression from not “succeeding,” but that’s not the depression that Tony is talking about. There are studies that depression is part of some people’s DNA. I suffered (as Erich knows) from severe depressions all of my life, the peak being when I was 19. There was no logical reason for it, so finding out what was wrong with me, and how to cure myself took decades. I can only describe it as one minite you’re fine, and suddenly you look up, and there’s a 50ft wave coming over you, that knocks you down, and you just know, you can’t get up for air.

    You will die. You grab on to the nearest tree and scream. It’s like someone poured glue over your brain. Nobody can help you, it’s like some stranger has come into your house, and he’s out to kill you. and you try to hide…but he’s there..waiting.

    The ONLY escape is sleep.

    Hormones in females are part of it. I was depressed anyway, but right before my monthy I got suicidal. At 19, they wanted to do a lobotomy. When you are that bad, you just want out of the pain. Of course, good thing I had low self esteem, I thought what little brain I had, I ought to KEEP, so I thank you.(lol) My god, If I had only had a doctor that could have gotten me on bioidentical hormones (remember that guys…with wives and daughters).

    But..I was determined to find out. What have I found out? Some people’s brains don’t function like others. The hypothalamus, your thyroid, your hormones, and your serotonin levels all help to put happy campers together. Many of us do not have those. No two brains are alike.

    But you know that. So much of the brain’s chemistry plays a part in who we are and how we react to life.

    There is even a theory that some people are just Highly Sensitive because of their amygdala (psychology today Sense and Sensitivity). I was one of those.

    HSP’s perceive the slightest sensory or emotional provocation, then respond with a flurry of brain activity that begets an outsize reaction, rumination, tears, histrionics on one hand, or unbridled enthusiasm on the other. These over sensitive amygdala’s flood the body with stress hormones.

    The brain is so fascinating!

    I took care of my father who had a brain tumor. While it was hard to see him suffer, you would be amazed at watching the different emotions coming out daily from someone suffering brain damage.

    I did not find my answers to my depressions until my mother (a decendant of JQA) told me one day to go read the Adam’s family diaries. Too bad she didn’t tell me this before. I had just turned fifty.

    Yes…John and John Quincy Adams suffered from severe depressions. John’s two son’s committed suicide. When I read their dairies I saw my very own thoughts coming at me.They beat up on themselves every single day. And they liked the same stuff I did..astronomy, books, trees, …I felt right at home in their minds.

    Somehow it was okay…my ancestors had suffered too, and somehow made a life. Hell, they not only delt with their lives, they help make a country. I told myself, I could handle my pain too. I knew I might never do anything brillant, but I refused to end up like John’s boys.

    I wrote Rona Barrett..(most of you will have no clue who she was so best look her up.) she suffers from severe depression although you would have never known it. She told me to go sit in a shower because the negative ions promote serotonin in your brain and she’s right. It got me through many a rough spot. She grows lilacs for a living now, because the smell makes her feel better. (another trick)

    Dr. Lee Salk, (Jonas’ brother), a man I used to date, told me to get off the pill..he said the pill was awful. (he was right.)

    Tony, YOU are right. Don’t eat too much wheat or grain. Fruits and meat.
    Also, if you have low thyroid, as I did, you are depressed. There is a fantastic book by Mark Starr called “Hypothyroidism Type II” that everyone should read. He claims we are a nation of decimated thyroids. (Thank you Monsanto, Tyson Chicken..etc, floride…)

    I started taking ARmour thyroid and I’m a different person. I can hardly remember those painful days now. If only I had found a doctor to help me all those years ago.

    I went to over 50 doctors searching to help me…but not one had a clue.

    One thing is sure: Most people, and most psychiatrists have no clue how bad depression is. They have trouble sympathizing. It’s like a man trying to imagine childbirth. I can laugh about it now, but one time I was so bad, and I held out till I made it to the doctor, but he fell asleep after about ten minutes of listening to me talk. I left. He didn’t even come looking for me. I ended up on the bathroom floor of his office, crying for over 3 hours,leaning against some wall.

    He got paid $150. I was intelligent enough to know not to do what I really wanted to do. That’s why I’m alive today. My own intelligence. Laugh if you like, but it’s true. The Bell Jar was really sad. She didn’t make it, did she?

    I once went to a big meeting with about 100 people who suffered from depression and the doctors..really had no clue. I used to tell the many doctors I went to how PROUD I was to have fought the desire to kill myself, and how many times I did not give in.

    None of them knew…you try wanting to kill yourself every single month and have to wait knowing that NEXT month, it will come again.

    So, I got this blackdog, as Winston Churchill used to call his depressions, from my family. The pills are not the answer. All they do is numb your brain. Make you stupid. Make you a vegetable. And some have the opposite effect…make you more depressed.

    Better to diet, get hormone therapy, get Armor thyroid…and take up swimming! Get as much sun as you can. Your brain needs help. It’s not your fault. It’s…as Tony says…organic.

    And find yourself a best friend.

    If I remember right, Erich wrote a really good paper in college on this subject…maybe he’ll find it and post it? Really Erich…I’d love to read it again!

    Tony…a made it! Here’s to ya! I know what you have seen. And you are…amazing.

  5. Jen says:

    Depression is nothing to mess around with. I’ve been treating my depression with magnetic therapy and it is helping me out a lot more than prescription drugs my doc gave me.

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