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:
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According to the latest edition of Scientific American Mind, new research suggests that depression is not necessarily a a disease or aberration. In many cases, having a depression might increase your chances of survival.
[D]epression should not be thought of as a disorder at all. In an article recently published in Psychological Review, we argue that depression is in fact an adaptation, a state of mind which brings real costs, but also brings real benefits.
The researchers go out of their way to acknowledge that depression is a terrible problem for many people who should seek out help. Nonetheless, they also suggest that the mode of thinking characteristic of many bouts of depression is focused, highly analytical and systematic:
Analysis requires a lot of uninterrupted thought, and depression coordinates many changes in the body to help people analyze their problems without getting distracted . . . [D]epression is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got complex social problems that the mind is intent on solving. Therapies should try to encourage depressive rumination rather than try to stop it, and they should focus on trying to help people solve the problems that trigger their bouts of depression . . . [D]epression . . . seems . . . like the vertebrate eye—an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function.
A good friend of mine once told me to “lead with the body” when you are struggling with anxiety or depression. Talking things out has it’s limits, he said, as do drugs. It was my friend’s belief that exercising the body will often allow the mind to clear itself up. It appears that my friend’s [...]
What’s the preferred treatment for Major Depressive Disorder? According to this study by a large team of researchers, anti-depressant medication and exercise led to comparable results. The exercise consisted of 10 minutes of warming up, then 30 minutes of jogging or brisk walking, enough to get to 70% of maximum heart rate reserve.
As human animals, we are condemned to live with great ignorance in an unpredictably violent world. To compensate, most of us work hard to develop an extraordinary expertise to protect ourselves from considering our precarious existence. We work hard to pre-screen toxic thoughts. We rarely contemplate our own inevitable deaths, for example. We are often [...]