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  • Dr. Gary Warstadt

Why Does Depression Exist?


Why does depression even exist?

Many times I have asked myself this question. Because It doesn’t seem to make sense that nature would allow for such a disabling, apparently useless thing to happen, especially so frequently.

I have come to believe that many of the things that we call mental illness occur because there is a mismatch between what our brains originally evolved for and the demands being placed on us by an increasingly complex human society.

We share large parts of our brain with lower animals. The intellectual, thinking part of our brain, much of which exists behind our forehead, is what sets us apart from other animals. This is the grey, wrinkly surface of the brain. Deeper parts of the brain, including the emotional parts, we share with other mammals. Every animal has different emotional settings. Consider our best friends, the dogs. Dogs and humans get each other because they have a very similar emotional makeup. They love, they get sad, they fear, and they have loyalty and friendships. What dogs don’t have are several of the things that make us more prone to anxiety and depression.

School, and the motivation to do things that they don’t feel like doing never crosses their mind. No grades, boring teachers, bullies and mean girls. Sleeping is a dogs full time job. Taxes, laws, alcohol, drugs and sugar cravings do not affect dogs. They’re unaware that one day they will grow old, become sick, and die.

Humans have to negotiate all this and more because we are faced with chronic situations that we often cannot satisfactorily resolve. This phenomenon of an unfixable and bad situation actually is something nature did anticipate.

Animals are often faced with problems they cannot solve. Think of a fox unsuccessfully trying to dig a rabbit out of its hole. Should it keep going forever? Of course not. It needs to activate its “give up” circuit.

If the animal has been attacked by a predator, badly injured and weakened, the animal has mechanisms for survival. It would certainly be a bad idea for the vulnerable animal to come out in the open, play, socialize, run around and expend a lot of energy. No, its best strategy is to lay low, keep still, crawl into its best hiding place, and wait it out until the situation improves. Starting to sound like depression?

Combine this “give up and lay low because you are in a chronically hopeless situation” mechanism with all the chronic human cultural stresses described above. Resulting in the beginnings of depression.

Layer on top of this other factors: a depressive psychological makeup stemming from childhood chronic stresses (like a dysfunctional family), genetic predisposition, or maybe substance abuse. Now the depression really gets rolling. Worse, the chemical and epigenetic (the system that controls our genes) changes start up and make the depression more deeply entrenched.

Just when you need all the strength you can muster, all your system wants to do is give up. You know you should fight, but all the fight has been drained out of you. This is a terrible state of affairs, but that awareness only makes you feel more miserable and defeated. You are losing the battle and you need allies.


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