Depression can be an adaptive way of dealing with certain problems in life, such as relationship breakdown and illness, say the authors of a new study.
While clinical depression is a serious mental health issue, the researchers argue that by examining how depression might have originally arisen, we can better understand how to treat it.
Dr. Paul Andrews, who led the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, said:
“Depression has long been seen as nothing but a problem.
We are asking whether it may actually be a natural adaptation that the brain uses to tackle certain problems.
We are seeing more evidence that depression can be a necessary and beneficial adaptation to dealing with major, complex issues that defy easy understanding.”
In fact, people who are depressed display some surprising advantages in their thinking skills.
- process information more deeply.
- are more accurate at complex tasks.
- make better judgements on detail-oriented information.
- make more accurate cost-benefit analyses.
Positive side of depression
The researchers developed a new questionnaire which measures ‘analytical rumination’, a mental process which is thought to be an ancient defence mechanism and the root of depression (Barbic et al., 2014).
Analytical rumination is where people turn problems over in their heads to the exclusion of all else, trying to look for a solution.
They first examine the problem’s cause, then the things that need solving, any possible solutions plus the costs and benefits of each solution.
The symptoms of depression, which often include lethargy, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration and disinterest in other people or the external world, may actually be ways of saving energy while a person is focusing on the problem.
Clinical depression may be a result of this natural process getting out of control, causing people to withdraw from the world after getting stuck in a loop.
Skye Barbic, the study’s first author, said:
“Based on how people answer our questions, we can tailor appropriate levels of care and supports.
This set of questions can also inform completely different discussions between the clinician and the patient.
Instead of discussing the disease as a ‘bad thing’, clinicians may be able to help patients have insight about the potential adaptive purposes of their thinking and how this may be used as a strength to move forward in their lives.”
Zachary Durisko, another of the study’s authors, said:
“When working with many people who experience chronic health conditions, depression is often the limiting factor to recovery and goal attainment.
The test can potentially quickly tell us when people are struggling to identify their problems, trying to set goals, or trying to move forward in their lives. “
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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