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Depression

Could Depression Serve a Purpose?

Why some researchers believe depression is designed to keep us safe.

Key points

  • Researchers believe depression may have once have helped us conserve energy when what we needed to survive were absent or scarce.
  • While some believe depression is maladaptive in the modern world, others say it has played a role in their survival of difficult circumstances.
  • Though we don't know exactly what causes depression, understanding its intended function could help us heal.

Sometimes our brains are like a really impressive GPS system from the 1990s: beautifully built outdated programs. It seems, for instance, that depression could be an outdated map for how to stay safe. It retains some function, even as it lacks precision.

The depression setting

If you’ve experienced depression, you know it’s about so much more than feeling sad. It can feel like your brain shifted to an entirely different setting or program. Thoughts become dark. The light of hope switches off. Your body may start to operate only on slow or stop, as each foot weighs a thousand pounds. Even though you’re the same person, it can feel like there’s a wall between you and the people and things you know you love.

The writer Anne Lamott offered this poignant illustration of her experience:

“And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.”

And in that lost capacity to rise out of the mud may be the purpose of depression. Even as it feels anything but functional, and even as it may be very much not helping you, there may be an underlying wisdom in why depression exists—in why we have that shutdown mode. A shutdown that’s so powerful sometimes we can’t get up despite our deepest desire.

An integrative theory of depression

This integrative theory of depression serving as an adaptive function may sound a bit “woo woo.” But one of the proponents is Dr. Aaron Beck, a pioneer behind cognitive-behavioral therapy. In an article published in 2016 in Clinical Psychological Science, Beck and colleague Keith Bredemeier take a multi-disciplinary perspective to explain some of depression’s more “puzzling features.”

They write:

“We propose that depression can be viewed as an adaptation to conserve energy after the perceived loss of an investment in a vital resource such as a relationship, group identity, or personal asset.”

In other words, the function of depression may be to conserve energy when what we need to survive is absent or scarce. Further, it doesn’t have to be true that our survival is threatened; it just needs to feel true.

For example, if you experience a breakup, it can understandably trigger that part of you that questions your safety and security. If you really believe you don’t have the resources you need to survive, it’s understandable that you might feel pulled to collapse.

This is why those who are predisposed to habits of mind like catastrophizing, or to negative thinking, may be at greater risk for depression.

Other ways depression can keep us safe

While Beck and Bredemeier suggest the biological symptoms of depression may have been adaptive at some point in our evolution, they believe it is maladaptive in the modern world. However, others may find that their depression did serve some function in contemporary society.

When I worked with survivors of family violence, for example, they sometimes remarked that depression kept them safe by reducing their activity level, and by temporarily shutting down their perceived need for love. Eventually what really kept them safe was getting out of a terrible situation, and doing the work to heal. But depression was an important part of their survival story.

To be clear, depression does not always have a silver lining or underlying function. It is an extremely hard condition to experience. Not all will relate to this sense of it being adaptive. And the truth is that researchers haven’t yet nailed down exactly what causes depression. But for those that relate to this, it can be one helpful lens for reframing.

Why this matters

Theories of depression matter when they can help humans turn a corner and reinhabit their lives. Understanding depression matters individually and globally, as it is one of the leading causes of disability.

If someone told me “depression can be functional" when I was in the throes of it, I may have wanted to throw something. Yet, in my own healing, and in supporting others to heal, I've found it’s a game-changer to not overly demonize the “demons.”

Although all I wanted was a metaphorical exorcism, what actually helped was taking the “demon” to dinner and figuring out how we could better co-exist—with me, not depression, in the driver’s seat. With depression in the background, thanks to working with my own mind and thanks to medication, I was able to rise from the mud and into my life again.

References

Beck, A. T., & Bredemeier, K. (2016). A Unified Model of Depression: Integrating Clinical, Cognitive, Biological, and Evolutionary Perspectives. Clinical Psychological Science, 4(4), 596–619. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702616628523

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