Can Depression be Healthy?

Is depression healthy for us? In an article entitled “Does Depression Serve an Evolutionary Purpose?” in science magazine Nautilus,  Mathew Hutson suggests that depression, rather than being a pathological dysfunction, is actually an evolutionary mechanism for achieving new benefits.

For the many of us who have ever experienced a depressive disorder in ourselves or loved ones, it can truly seem like a “disorder,” something very flawed that brings us unnecessary suffering. However, recent studies suggest that depression, along with its typical symptoms of loss of pleasure, rumination, and increased REM sleep is actually an adaptive way to focus on things that need to be changed in our lives. Loss of pleasure in typical activities, or anhedonia, may be the body’s way of turning attention inward to deal with issues that might otherwise be overlooked. Rumination, the dwelling on certain thoughts, may also be a mechanism to bring attention to the solving of a problem. Increased REM sleep also serves a function in helping to consolidate new memories.

Viewed in this manner, depression isn’t just a set of symptoms that need to be cured. It is the mind/body’s call to action for dealing with a problem that might otherwise be ignored. Although these studies are very recent, this same view was put forth by M. Scott Peck in his groundbreaking book “The Road Less Traveled” in 1978. Peck, in his chapter titled “The Healthiness of Depression” states that depression always accompanies the process of giving up something that no longer serves us. Giving up something that we loved and that has become a part of us makes us feel depressed. This feeling can accompany the loss of a relationship but can also more subtly be associated with the giving up of aspects of our lives or identity that don’t make sense any longer. These feelings of depression are then a call to action to examine the parts of our lives that need to be addressed. Much of the time, depression vanishes on its own, especially as we come to terms with the giving up process. If the call is strong enough or lasts long enough, we seek out the help of a therapist, whose job is then to help identify and complete the growth process that needs to be done.

According to Peck, depression only becomes unhealthy when the giving up process becomes stuck. That is when depression becomes pathological and needs greater examination as to what is hindering the giving up process. Peck believes that childhood trauma can contribute to difficulties in being able to let go. The normal letting go process can also be hindered by parents taking away things and comforts before the child is psychologically ready to give them up. These obstacles to letting go may continue to manifest in the life of the adult, causing more extreme and more prolonged depression symptoms and necessitating deeper therapy.

The recent studies appear to support Peck’s earlier theories and can help us look at depression in a new and even positive way. These uncomfortable feelings are not just unpleasant symptoms to be endured; they are a call to action to help bring about new and healthy behaviors.