What Dogs Can Teach Us about the Main Cause of Depression
Canines' depression-like actions clarify what triggers human depression—and why.
Posted Jun 08, 2017
Dogs are smart. When another dog that's larger or more vicious starts to growl, they know how to stay safe. Injuries are unappealing, so instead of getting into a fight that they might lose, what do dogs do? They show appeasement behaviors. Appeasement turns out to look a lot like depression.
As I explain in my website and book Prescriptions Without Pills, when people take a submissive stance in challenging situations, they may trigger feelings of depression. Depression thus can be seen as a sensible option in response to a situation in which people feel threatened by bad consequences if they were to attempt to continue to pursue what they want. Sometimes giving up may be safer.
Stanley Coren explains this appeasement phenomenon in his fascinating blog post on dogs' calming signals and their effectiveness at preventing dangerous confrontations with more aggressive dogs.
Appeasement conveys giving up and letting the other party win. "I fold with regard to getting what I want. Have it your way."
In the face of a hostile larger animal, if a smaller or less aggressive dog lies down submissively, he may lose what he wanted in the immediate conflict but he gains safety. He prevents injury. Pretty smart!
Coren details what happens in a confrontation between a spaniel and a growling larger dog, "The spaniel immediately dropped down so that its belly was against the ground. He then turned his head away from the threatening dog ..."
In other words, the spaniel gave up, demonstrating appeasement by lowering his body to the ground, a sign of submissiveness. "You win," the spaniel seemed to say, "so there's no point in fighting about it. I give up on trying to get what I want. I will let you have what you want in exchange for your calming down and leaving me unharmed."
Once the threatening larger animal walked away, the smaller spaniel, still alive and well, resumed his normal size and posture.
What then is the main cause of depression?
In people, giving up on getting what you want triggers depression. That is, a fold response to a situation or life bump heads you down the road that heads straight for depression.
What can you do at that point, once you have begun feeling depressed, to feel better again?
The visualization that I describe in the following video is based on the understanding that people sometimes give up, taking Fold Road, much like dogs do. And in these situations, the price they pay is depression.
The visualization helps you to identify the situation in which you folded, re-energize yourself, and then find an alternative way to get what you want.
For more details on how to do this visualization, on your own or with the help of a therapist, see the book Prescriptions Without Pills and/or download the free handouts that you can find on the prescriptionswithoutpills website.
So what can dogs help us to understand about the cause of depression?
Dogs teach us that depressive responses have an upside. Depressive folding can prevent you from getting injured in confrontations with others whom you regard as more powerful or otherwise dangerous.
With that understanding however, you need no longer feel depressed. Lift your depression with a 3 P's visualization. Pinpoint the problem. Pump up your psychological sense of power. Then problem-solve to create a new and safer way to go about resolving your dilemma.
That's the 3 P's formula. Next time you feel down, no need to stay sunk in dark, negative feelings of depression. Instead, close your eyes and give the 3 P's a try!
Denver psychologist Dr. Susan Heitler has received over 10 million hits on her psychologytoday blog, Resolution, Not Conflict.
To learn conflict resolution skills for handling difficult situations without folding, see Dr. Heitler's book The Power of Two.