Sunday, February 10, 2013

Is Depression a Defense Mechanism?

Having learned about depression briefly during health and psychology classes, I was always taught that it was a result of multiple factors including brain chemistry imbalance, social factors, and mental factors. I was never taught about, nor did I ever consider, that depression could be thought of as a sort of defense mechanism from an evolutionary standpoint.

Of course, any illness is usually a result of multiple factors rather than just one. Stress-related illnesses, which can be due to eating habits, sleep, peace of mind, and exercise, are a perfect example of this. I've always been taught that depression is not ever the result of one factor. The social, mental, and biological factors make perfect sense to me, but when I first began reading that depression could be due to evolution, I must admit I was skeptical. How could people possibly have ever benefited in any way from the effects of depression? I suppose it makes sense though. The reading discusses the possibility that in situations where "winning" was not an option, it would be futile, and possibly dangerous, for humans to even attempt a task. This might lead to the feeling of hopelessness and unwillingness to put forth effort that is associated with depression. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism, a way of exchanging one very unpleasant outcome for a slightly less unpleasant one.

Why, then, is depression so prevalent and detrimental to us now? Like the fight-or-flight response, it could have served a very useful purpose in history, protecting us from negative situations. In our modern-day world, we do experience many more stressors though. Instead of helping us to "yield in a hierarchy conflict," these feelings of pessimism could arise simply from a situation in which we feel bullied or are in some way made to feel inadequate. I imagine these types of situations arise more often for humans now than they did back then, so this response of a low mood and possibly depression is perhaps overused. The best thing we can do right now is to do our best to handle the depression-causing factors that are within our control. In this way, we can exercise more control over other factors and be rewarded with better, happier moods. This is exactly the same way we discussed dealing with stress, and I suggest it because the evolution of stress and depression seem extremely similar to me.


  1. Depression used as a defense mechanism sounds a little strange to me too, but I thought maybe I am not sure of what a defense mechanism is. I looked it up and I found that it is a way people unconsciously distort reality to make themselves seem more socially acceptable, which is exactly what depression does not do. As I read your post it started to make more sense. The point you made how depression can take you out of situations that you have no chance at being successful in makes a lot of sense to me.
    An example I can make of this is how one of my friends is depressed about a relationship she was in. While she was in that relationship she lost track of her work. Now, while she is depressed she wishes to be alone a lot more and is catching up on her work. Her depression made her not want to be bothered with her ex or anyone else, so she is benefiting from the isolation by catching back up on what she came to school for; her education. I am not sure if that is the best example, but that is the thing that came to mind when I read this blog. Let me know if I am way off or not.

  2. Marina,

    I, too, never considered depression from an evolutionary perspective. Similarly, I never considered emotions to be an evolutionary defense/response effort to predict and cope with adaptive challenges (16).

    It does makes sense to me that a depressive outlook would be evolutionarily developed as a way to disengage in situations that will likely not have a beneficial outcome. But clinically diagnosed depression seems to me something else more extreme. What a physician would diagnose as depression - persistent low mood, low self-esteem, and a defeated attitude - interrupts daily life. This outlook does not seem progressive for an individual. So how does this have any evolutionary advantage?

    I would then tend to come to the same conclusion you do – perhaps depression does have its evolutionary roots but like, stress in our modern-day society, gets pushed past its healthy limits. What was once an evolutionary defense has been subjected to extreme circumstance and has become a dysfunction of the mechanics of the body.

    So is chronic depression unique to our modern culture? It’s hard to imagine our human ancestors being chronically depressed. If you think about it, they lived in small communities, in slow-paced cultures, with limited goal-driven commitments. There was plenty of time to not be stressed or depressed. Our lifestyles are vastly different today.

    A depressive mood develops when it is best for one to disengage in a situation. Where as chronic depression occurs when that individual is unable to disengage from the situation. But is depression, as it is diagnosed, adaptive? Does it really have any benefit that simple low moods would not suffice at accomplishing?

    I guess the lack of motivation one feels when depressed would force them to disengage in almost all of daily events, in so disengaging from the harmful behavior or commitment that triggered the low mood in the first place.

    However, depression can create a positive feedback loop, ensuring more depressive states. So, depression would have no clear ‘trigger’ event to over come. The cycle would be potentially harmful to future commitments. I think the complexity of human thought makes depression deep-seeded and multi-faceted, in that, multiple factors can trigger depression and once triggered, can keep one in a depressive state.

    If not all traits are evolutionarily adapted and if not all adapted traits are beneficial, how do we know that evolution plays a beneficially adaptive part in the occurrence of depression?

    After thought:
    Are there personality types that are more prone to depression? I understand that depression is common in people that tend to commit to unreachable goals, so would a perfectionist personality be prone to depression? Or would the perfectionist see the imperfectness in a depressive state?