Naturally when you suffer from something, you want to find out answers. This is human nature. We want to, as a species, know why something happens. We are actually so determined to find answers, we invent fantastical stories to fulfil our ‘why‘ needs. It is easy to think back to any era and see we invented stories of sun gods and rain gods and committed sacrifices, all to fulfil a need to know why something happened (why it rained, why it is sunny, etc.).
Those are the big things, but we also do it with small things. Why do some people win football matches and other people win the lottery, well maybe its because of their lucky charm or because they tie the left shoe lace first.
All nonsense – but it makes us feel better.
If we have a reason for why something happens then we are much more comfortable in our environment – the cornerstone of modern religion. However it is for this reason why mental illness is so debilitating. We have no why. I want a why. Give me a why.
Well ok, here is one explanation in to the evolutionary benefit of depression.
Lets take it right back to the basics – pain. Pain is our guiding friend, we don’t think of it as a friend, but it is. It stops us from repeating things which are harmful to us. Put your hand on a hot stove once and you will know exactly what I mean. Pain teaches us and guides us. This can be physical, as mentioned above, or it can be mental i.e. dating a guy who is known to cheat a lot, then he cheats on you. You have learned that if you see a similar situation again, you should probably act differently. Thats all down to pain. Good ole’ pain.
Depression is painful, and because pain has such a strong link to guidance and improvement, there must be a benefit. The problem is however, pain is such a bad communicator. We have to create the links our self. We touch the stove and there is a very obvious link between the pain and the action. With depression it is more difficult, more complex – depression is the mother of the worst communicators.
What could be the benefit of depression?
We typically think it makes no sense to feel down and depressed, and certainly in the modern world this seems to ring true. However a few years ago I did the Zurich Ironman Triathlon, which I wrote about here. During training I did a lot of research into training, diets and anything I could find really. That is when I came across the recurring topic of depression. Why would this keep coming up in Ironman stories?
Athletes would describe going into a deep depression immediately after the race or event. This was also the case for me, I experienced this first hand. The theory states that we push our bodies so hard and so far, we get so many endorphins and so many highs, that the mind takes over. It becomes worried that we will be inspired, that we will do it all again. Pushing ourselves further, and harder than before. Depression becomes a self defense mechanism, to protect us against ourselves. If we are depressed, down and unmotivated, it stops us from doing the most basic things, like getting out of bed. We must rest.
That was certainly the effect for me, I didnt do any exercise again for months, in fact, almost a year.
Now I see the major pitfalls in this theory. Most people don’t do an ironman and most people don’t do other extremely demanding physical activities every week. So how can we marry this up?
Well, in my view, the modern world, modern pressures, modern stresses are all the mental equivalent of an ironman. They push the mind so hard and so far – it needs a rest. It needs to recover. The problem is we live in a society which doesn’t allow for that, does not compensate for that and is not forgiving of it either. We can’t remove ourselves from the situation because we are the situation.
And so begins the cycle of depression.
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