Understanding Depression

The human body is a complex system. So there are many different ways of understanding and describing depression. However the best explanation of depression for us is one that helps us understand what we can to do to alleviate and manage it.

“Low levels of this neurotransmitter affects that brain chemical… blah blah blah” isn’t a very useful explanation unless you are a pharmacist. Another way of explaining depression is to list all the symptoms or what it feels like, this might be useful for forming a diagnosis but not for doing much about it.

This post is a more useful explanation that hopefully puts depression in context.

Emotions, feelings, motivation (or a lack of them in the case of depression) have been shaped by evolution to help our ancestors survive in their natural environment. So we feel good after a good night’s sleep, a filling meal, or spending time socialising. (Social acceptance and social status were very important for our ancestor’s survival. Getting kicked out the tribe could have meant certain death. Being high up in your tribe would have had many advantages.)

We feel negative emotions towards things that weren’t good for our survival and prosperity like pain from an injury, discomfort when too hot or too cold, tiredness when we are sleep deprived, or upset when we lose someone within our social circle.

Although sometimes these feelings weren’t very pleasant to experience they increased our ancestor’s survival more often than not so they became a permanent part of our brains. Evolution lead to us being good at survival, not good at being happy. Depression is one of these traits that increased our ancestor’s chances of survival in their natural environment. You could describe it as being outdated in a way, or as going a bit haywire in our modern day world.

Here are some examples of things that increase depression, it is easy to see how they also would have negatively affected our ancestor’s chances of successful survival:

  • Vitamin Deficiencies
  • Poor Health
  • Long term illness like diabetes
  • Lack of friends and family to rely on in times of need
  • Victim of a bully
  • Poor fitness
  • High levels of stress
  • Lack of food (starvation)
  • Poor access to resources (money)
  • Putting too much effort in to a goal that is starting to appear achievable

You experience depression when you encounter too much of the above or other long term threats to your survival, prosperity or procreation. Your brain creates depression as a way of forcing withdrawal from your existing life style. In the hope you end up with a new lifestyle where the above problems are avoided.

It’s Cumulative

A really important thing to understand about depression is that it is a cumulative effect. Someone that has a particular illness will be more depressed if they have that illness and don’t spend much time with friends and family. And they would be less depressed if they spend more time with friends and family. Being ill and having no social support was a bigger threat to survival than just one or the other. Each thing adds up to increase depression – by convincing you brain that long term survival based on your current lifestyle / circumstances is unlikely.

People who live in a city with more pollution have higher levels of depression. Those extra people who wouldn’t have been depressed if there was less pollution, would have still been close to being depressed due to other factors in their lives. Their susceptibility to pollution just prodded them over the line.

So depression is cumulative but so is the cure. If you can’t control one of the things on the above list you can improve the others to relieve depression. Especially the things on the list where you are weakest. Convincing your brain that you current lifestyle is more likely to lead to survival.

It’s like our brain adds up all the positives and negatives (e.g. good social network minus poor health) and decides what the chances of our future survival would be (based on us still living in “the wild”). If the conclusion is that our chances are good then we are happy and motivated to continue with our current life style.

If our brain decides that prospects seem bleak then we start to lose interest and motivation towards our current lifestyle. Towards our job, hobbies we used to enjoy and people we used to like spending time with. It works in a “catch-all” way, we lose motivation towards many things, not just the bits where we are weak like poor diet. In our natural environment there would have been overlap between our daily routines, who we spent time with and what food and other resources we had access to.

Depression would have caused our ancestors to withdraw from their daily routines that were causing low chances of future survival and then they would make changes. Therefore increasing their chances of survival in the long run. It isn’t quite that simple any more. It’s more difficult than ever to eat the right diet, get exercise, spend time with friends and family and relive stress.

Achieving good health is more difficult than ever, a lot of the foods and friendly probiotic bacteria that our ancestors ate may not even exist anymore. And lots of new environmental toxins and stressors have come in to existence.

Unlike our ancestors we have to make a deliberate effort to eat healthy, go out and socialise, get exercise and so on. Depression reduces our motivation to do these things. So our modern environment can create a nasty downward depression spiral. Where you are too depressed to muster the willpower to do the things that relieve your depression.

In summary:

  • Depression was shaped by evolution to make us withdrawn when we don’t meet certain survival requirements that are 50,000+ years out of date
  • It is increasingly difficult to meet these anti-depression requirements in our modern day environment without deliberate effort, as depression reduces motivation it can easily become a downward spiral making it perpetually worse
  • The cure to depression is cumulative, there are many different things you can do to improve it.

So managing your depression is really about:

  • Building the motivation to do the things that help relieve depression
  • Knowing how to tackle depression in an efficient and effective way so you can do it even with minimal levels of motivation
  • Getting results quickly so that you aren’t discouraged, helping you build and maintain momentum.

That’s what I’ll mostly be talking about on this blog.

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