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The Evolutionary Origins of Depression: Why Depression Always Returns

“Sadness and low levels of depression are adaptive since they lead the individual to try and make up a loss. By contrast, severe or clinical depression is not adaptive, but can be thought of as sadness having become malignant.”- Lewis Wolpert

Major depression, also known as major depressive disorder, clinical depression, or simply depression, is a leading cause of disability worldwide. In and of itself it is a devastating affliction, but it also is the fourth leading contributor to all diseases. Approximately 50% of all people will meet the criteria for major depression at least for some portion of their life. Despite its prevalence, people tend to whisper when they talk about this disease, making it hard to identify and hard to treat. In fact, the average person doesn’t think of it as a disease at all. The disease of depression has no Race for a Cure, no car washes, fundraisers, or people dumping ice water over their heads on Facebook. The crushing and debilitating effects of depression are usually borne in silence, a private cross carried alone.

Occurrences of depression are so common in the human animal that there must be some reason and logic behind it. Mankind has been trying to eradicate depression since the depressedStone Age with only moderate success. Depression is largely thought of as a dysfunction, modern psychiatry usually labels it as a “mental disorder,” perhaps further stigmatizing with this label. Evolutionary psychologists who have studied the disease believes that the disorder may have an evolutionary and adaptive purpose and explain its prevalence as a hardwired behavior that at one time in human development was a survival mechanism. This theory, although controversial, would explain why depression is so prevalent and often treatment resistent.

Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg, author and professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, has researched the evolutionary purpose of depression and has come up with a number of plausible, if not probable, reasons that humans have historically been plagued with treatment resistant depression. He is the author of a fascinating book called The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, in which he discusses reasons that depression serves and adaptive function for the human animal.

Rottenberg believes that humans are, in fact animals, albeit highly intelligent and insightful animals. Humans have competed for millions of years with other forms of life on the planet. What has allowed us to survive is the adaptive abilities that come from human intelligence and the human psyche. He cites the comparative way that a human mother and a chimpanzee mother would grieve the loss of an infant: “A chimpanzee cannot report I’m feeling sad. Nevertheless, when the modern chimpanzees sees the baby chimpanzee die, it has a very similar behaviors and very similar things going on inside the mother chimp’s body as human’s do when they’re grieving the loss of their own infant.” He goes on to explain that grief, depression, and profound sadness are not only universal in these situations, but serves and adaptive purpose. “Death,” he says, “is always a sign to pay attention to what’s going on and what we can learn from it. Low mood makes us stop. It makes us analyze the environment really carefully, so you don’t repeat the same mistakes that got us into a situation in the first place.”

The psychiatric world classifies depression as a “mood disorder.” Mood is a perceptual interpretation of what a person is feeling internally at a given moment in time. We know what kind of mood we are in, even if it’s not readily visible to everyone else. “Moods,” says Dr. Rottenberg, “also organize us. When we’re in a good mood, we not only feel good but we’re prepared to take certain actions. For example, I’m in a good mood and that’s when I want to get together with friends. That’s when I want to have fun. Conversely, when I’m in a really low mood, I tend to withdraw. The mood actually makes me more likely or less likely to do certain things. Moods actually have this ability to change our cognitions, they change what’s going on in our body. They’re more than just feelings, they actually organize our activities.”

Depression, in many who suffer with it, can be correlated with seasonal changes. People paleolithic-hunter-gathererswho live in climates that have contrasting seasons often are more prone to depression in the winter months of November to March. The same people usually find a lifting of the symptoms in the month of April. This also has an evolutionary component to it as primitive man had to slow down to survive during those long, cold Stone Age winters, almost hibernating as a means of survival. The Spring months were a time of gathering food and preparing to survive the rest of the year. The longer days provided more sunlight to utilize for the hunt for sustenance and, therefore, more energy and enthusiasm for life. As the human species developed, the tendency of mood to be influenced by seasonal changes remained.

Depression is also associated with low energy and diminished enthusiasm for normal activities of daily living, leading to staying indoors and other isolating behaviors. This deprives a person of sunlight, perhaps triggering an evolutionary cause of depression. Contemporary man, in many parts of the world, spends most of his time and conducts most of their his activities indoors away from the mood lifting benefits of sunlight. A study done in San Diego California showed that approximately 50% of the population there spent around a half an hour per day in sunlight, hardly enough to gain any mood elevating benefit. Sleep, also a major factor in combating depression, is something that virtually everyone struggles with from time to time. Even those who get the required amount of sleep don’t necessarily get the quality of sleep needed to be fully energized and to optimize their mood. Primitive man didn’t have clocks and technology forcing them to sleep at predetermined and artificially constructed times. These realities could be the reason that your doctor prescribes vitamin D supplementation and explains why you sleep great on a vacation. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/natural-ways-cope-depression/ )

Even those who do not struggle with clinical depression will experience its symptoms as a result of living a normal life. Depression is often referred to as the common cold of psychiatry. No sane and rational person can live life and not experience it periodically. Sadness, a normal human emotional experience, is usually caused by some sort of loss, from loss of person, money, a job, or a meaningful relationship. This too has a evolutionary origin. Man is a social animal whose survival is largely determined by his ability to remain connected to a larger group of his own kind. The loss that we feel from a relationship or the grief we feel from the death of a loved one is programed in us to reinforce the fact that we must be part in a larger group of humans to survive. These types of attachments are adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, driving mate selection, procreation, and to bond with and protect with our offspring.(See also http://mindbodycoach.org/going-tribal/ )

The research of evolutionary psychologists indicates that depression, rather than being a malfunction, is actually an adaptive mechanism. An understanding of this can allow for the acceptance of the painful emotions that follow many of the difficult challenges that normal life throws at us. Accepting these as a natural part of the human experience doesn’t necessarily dull the pain, but may allow you to keep it in perspective and prevent it from crossing over into a major depressive episode. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/acceptance-true-wisdom/ )

It’s also important to understand that humans are not meant to be ecstatically happy all the time. With the artificial community created by television and the Internet, many peopleadaptive-images.php believe that everyone but them is leading these wonderful, perfect lives, doing all these exciting things, and living free of emotional pain. They know this by looking at the Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and Instagram selfies of the beautiful people and ask themselves, “What’s wrong with me?” The answer is nothing, you are a normal human being adapting to your world in a normal and entirely human fashion, and what you see on Facebook and the Internet is an idealized reality.

You’re normal, and so are your feelings. Feel what you feel and be patient. This too shall pass.

“Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.”- Jonathan Rottenberg


P. S. If you found this article helpful, you may benefit from some personalized mindbody coaching. Contact me at http://mindbodycoach.org/contact-us/ if interested in online mindbody coaching. Please check out my Products page through the link at the top of this post.. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media. Email me with questions at john@mindbodycoach.org

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