Winter Blues

According to Kevin Loria depression may be our brain’s way of telling us to stop and solve a problem

There is a theory that suggests that rather than being a problem depression might be a specific behavioural strategy that we have evolved as a biological adaptation that serves a purpose. As Matthew Hutson explains in a Nautilus feature on the potential evolutionary roots of depression and suicidal behaviour , that the purpose of depressions might be to make us… 

…stop, understand, and deal with an important problem.

At this time of year people report symptoms of moderate to severe depression. It is the time of year when the sunlight fades and the levels of vitamin D start to drop and this reduces the level of serotonin in the brain. We are into depression season. 

Across the board in both the USA and Europe major depressive disorders are now so common that at as many as one in six people  will suffer from it.

So why does such a debilitating condition strike so many people? 

The traditional understanding is that depression is just a breakdown in the normal working of the brain. This is seen as a chemical imbalance that is treated by chemical medication designed to balance chemistry, change mood and create shifts in  behaviours.

Could depression have developed to help us?

Evolutionary psychologist Paul Andrews and psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson first elaborated on this idea, called the “analytical rumination hypothesis,” in an article published in Psychological Review in 2009.

Their idea is that what we think of as a disorder is actually a way for our brains to analyse and dwell on a problem in the hopes of coming up with a way to deal with it. The researchers suggest it’s possible that a difficult or complex problem triggers a “depressive” reaction in some people that sends them into a sort of analytical mode which then enables them to change behaviours, strategies and attitudes. It allows them to stop long enough to solve a problem.

This intrigues me greatly because in the Ayurvedic model, my original training, depression is also seen as a gift, as a way of our system telling us that something was wrong and giving us the chance to sort it out. This would explain the increased rumination that arising in depressive episodes. Along side this in and increase in dream sleep. The two phases of sleep are deep sleep (NREM) and dream sleep (REM). It is assumed that deep sleep is the resting phase concerned with repair of the body and dream sleep is an active phase concerned with processing experience and emotion. In depression the dream sleep eats into the deep sleep so that despite sleeping for long periods of time the person does not experience rest and may become progressively more tired.

The concept that depression might be an evolutionary adaptation rather than a mental disorder is not the main consensus of the mental health community. in reality it cannot be true for all depression. It would be true for there are always those that suffer a reactive depression in response to a trauma or traumatic stimulus. Even so this could still account for around 80% of depressive episodes.

The problem is that in most cases depression is not the cause it is the symptomatic response to the cause. In western medicine we tend to only treat the symptom and pay little or no attention to the cause. 

It could be that if we accepted depression as a gift and took the opportunity to undertake a self audit to enable us to get our lives back on track. Instead we treat depression negatively as a problem and medicate the symptoms and fail to deal with the cause. It would make sense that if alongside medication we engaged in mindful therapy we could speed up treatment and help to dissolve depressive episodes. While some people do get referred for cognitive behavioural therapy it is not always an effective way to deal with depression. It is the addition of mindfulness that makes the therapy really effective. 

MBCT

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is designed to deal with and overcome issue of reactive or repetitive depression. MBCT, is recommended by the United Kingdom’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) for the prevention of recurrent and reactive depression and has also been shown to be effective in treating the symptoms of anxiety.

If we can look at the challenges that we face in life as learning opportunities rather than problems then we can to stop long enough to grow and develop. So, perhaps depression is the thing that can make us stop long enough to get our life right.

Take care and be happy

Sean x