Why Depression May Actually Be Your Greatest Teacher

Graeme Cowandepression

The ability to let go of unreachable goals can be a sign that depression is a natural defence mechanismFor most people, depression – however it manifests and whatever its roots – is an insidious and destructive illness that drags you down into hopelessness, unproductiveness and a cycle of negative thinking that can undermine recovery efforts. The effects on your life can be devastating.

But can some types of depression actually be good for us? Should we hold off for a moment before reaching the antidepressants or going for a run? From an evolutionary standpoint, some researchers argue that there is some utility to be found in the Black Dog.

Be Able To Let Go

An article in the 27th June 2009 edition of The Economist explored the theory, put forward by psychologist and research in evolutionary medicine Dr. Randolph Nesse, that depression acts as a natural warning mechanism.

Dr. Nesse’s theory states that, in the same way pain prevents you from doing things that will cause you damage, so depression stops you causing yourself mental damage – such as by pursuing unreachable goals.

If a goal can’t be reached, the energy and resources expended are wasted. Dr. Nesse contends that low mood can therefore form part of an evolved mechanism that identifies and inhibits the pursuit of the unattainable. After all, if you’re in a low mood, you’re less inclined and able to achieve goals, right?

The article cited a study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published that month which appeared to support the notion. In that study of young adolescents, it was found that participants who experienced mild depressive symptoms could disengage more easily from unreachable goals than those who did not.

A remarkable corollary was that those who could disengage from the unattainable goal proved less likely to suffer more serious depression in the long-term. The conclusion of the article: it is healthy to give up overly ambitious goals.

Does this mean that mild depression can be a healthy warning sign that we are chasing after unrealistic goals? Maybe… read on to find out how to turn this into action.

Can Depression’s Physical And Mental Symptoms Be Instructive?

Does depression enhance our ability to analyse and focus on a problem?A recent article in Psychology Today offers another perspective: the effects of depression can actually help us work through situational problems which can be the cause of some types of depression. Citing a study from Psychological Review, conducted in 2009, the article raises some interesting points:

  • Depression changes the depth of our analysis –a depressed person thinks about problems by breaking complex issues into small chunks;
  • Depression aids focus – whilst the negative thought cycle can be draining and uncontrollable, depression prevents distraction on other issues;
  • Physical symptoms prevent distraction – lack of sexual desire, craving for solitude and lack of energy aid focus, as we won’t be distracted.

Ridiculous Rubbish… Or Revealing Reality?

Personally, I can see the value in the theory advanced by the first article. The reaction to realising that a goal you set out to achieve is unattainable can sometimes be mild depression. But the value you place on that goal can affect the extent and intensity of that depression. If you feel that part of your definition of yourself hinges on the achievement of that goal, you stand to suffer significantly more than someone who does not place the same emphasis on achieving that goal.

As indicated by the study, your ability and willingness to let go also matter. If you are able to let go of your attachment to that goal and its achievement, you can disengage with the source of your depression and no longer identify with it, in which case it is less likely to affect you. But if you can’t let go and persist, even though you know a goal is unattainable and that this fact has already caused you low mood, you may be on track for more severe depression later down the line.

Does this mean you should give up on every goal you can’t achieve?

Up to you.

It’s a judgement you have to make based on your own circumstances, the value you place on achieving those goals and the cost and consequences of achieving or not achieving them. Just be aware that low mood can sometimes be an early warning sign.

That said, success requires persistence. You need to work out which goals are important enough to you to be worth the price, whatever that price may be.

You need to be careful when considering the second article. It refers to analysis and rumination over problems that can be the trigger for situational types of depression. Those who suffer from other types of depression – such as those with bipolar or dysthymia – may end up ruminating over perceived issues which are not issues at all (same risk with situational depression, of course). In that case, the analysis and focus may not do much good or help the sufferer get out of depression.

I know from my own experience that I have found it very hard to find the energy to even start a task, let alone stay focused on that task. So I’m not sure the benefits are always the case for every person suffering from depression. But it’s an interesting take on the illness.

What do you think? Can the effects of depression be a useful early warning sign? Does the modified thinking serve a purpose? Join the discussion in the comments to this blog or on Facebook!