A New Way to Look at Depression

Evolutionary psychology proposes ways of helping us to understand our cognitive processes by looking to the past.

Just like human beings have physically adapted to our environment in order to survive, evolutionary psychology suggests that we adapted cognitively the same way…

And that many mental and emotional reactions have served an important evolutionary purpose.

Now some psychologists are offering a new way to look at depression through an evolutionary lens.

The crux of this new hypothesis is that depression offers time for ‘rumination’ — more time to think deeply and contemplate our lives, our goals and our choices.

And this rumination may offer us greater insight into who we are and who we want to be.

In no way are the psychologists minimising the suffering of those who are going through extended or periodic depression…

But perhaps it can offer some consolation, some comfort, and some purpose in these challenging times.

Evolutionary psychologist Paul Andrews argues that depression may be ‘an adaptation for analysing complex problems’.

He supports his theory by identifying the symptoms that come with depressive episodes:

Anhedonia, or the inability to feel much pleasure; increased rumination; and more REM sleep, which is associated with improved memory.

He claims that this reflects an evolutionary design that helps to ‘pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the one underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.’

In turn, this may help us to address those triggers and our ability to handle them.

For young people, loss of friendship and social conflict can be a huge trigger for depression.

In this instance, ruminating on what part we played in the dissolution of the friendship, or what kind of ‘friends’ we may want to avoid in the future, may serve a beneficial purpose for our future selves…

It may help to make us more empathetic, too. 

Psychotherapist Lisa McCrohan has described this exact phenomena on her blog.

She discussed her experience as a child of being included in a friendship circle at a new school — to the exclusion of another.

Not long after, the tables had turned, and Lisa was the one being excluded.

Many parents have witnessed their children being ostracised at school, and the impact on their self-esteem and happiness can be devastating to watch.

But Lisa managed to find purpose in her experience.

What came out of my experience with ‘mean girls?’, Lisa asks.

‘I became an includer.’

Through reflection and rumination during her challenging experience, she found an ‘opportunity’ and a ‘triumph’.

‘I became someone who sees the outsider and looks to include people. I became someone who is good at bringing people in, making them feel a part of things.I practices forgiveness. I’m working on receiving forgiveness and extending forgiveness to others. Through loving attention, through learning to include it all with mindfulness and compassion, these early experiences of rejection, betrayal and hurt transformed me.’ 

Although Andrews’ hypothesis on depression is in the early stages, examples like this do give this evolutionary purpose added weight — it seems to make sense, and many of us will be able to relate it to our own experiences.

And the concept has been around in various forms for quite some time; after all, the purpose of Greek Tragedy was said to be a form of personal catharsis — to immerse oneself in pathos for time to ruminate and heal.

So just like evolutionary psychology can help kids especially to understand their own anxiety, perhaps this view of depression can help them to interpret and find purpose in their times of sadness and depression.

‘This framing of depression as a space for reflection is empowering’, says journalist Drake Baer. ‘And [it] lends a degree of agency to the person being pressed down.’

A depressed person’s ability to find meaning in their suffering is not dependent on the amount they’ve suffered, but the extent of their reflection, says Laura King, a psychologist who has spent decades studying people’s experiences of finding meaning in life. 

Finding purpose in depression, as opposed to simply eliminating it or minimising its symptoms, is a subjective, rather than objective process.

And since it’s subjective, says Baer, ‘the problems and solutions will be personal… and thus demand the individualised understanding of the sufferer of depression, perhaps with the assistance of a skilled therapist.’ 

If your child is suffering from extended periods of depression (when it’s disrupting their ability to function on a daily basis for a period of more than two weeks), help from a psychologist will assist them in their ability to reflect and interpret their experience.

But for smaller challenges, you can help your kids to deal with their suffering by showing them its potential purpose.

Show them how their experiences may inform their future decisions. 

Encourage them to find something they’ve learned from the experience, and how it will benefit them in the future. 

And help them to consider how their experience may make them kinder and more compassionate to others. 

As Baer suggests: ‘while disengagement from emotionality characterises depression and other disorders, engagement with one’s inner world looks to be the way out.’ 

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