Constance was meticulous in everything she did. Her friends and colleagues said that while she was really well-intentioned, her standards were just too high and she was way too controlling. “You need to let go” everyone told her. But she was determined to get things just right. And when a big project didn’t go her way, she found herself falling into into a funk. She couldn’t care anymore.
But since we tend to think of depression as nothing more than a pathological state, it didn’t occur to her that perhaps walking away from unrealistic expectation might be a healthy reaction. Not only did she miss the message, she interpreted it in a way that made her more depressed.
This is the first in a short series about the reasons that compulsive people get depressed. People who have compulsive personality traits, or who have obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), are especially susceptible to depression, and it’s important to untangle the two. Otherwise they can each make the other worse. Being compulsive can make us depressed, and sometimes we try to cure or cover the depression by being more compulsive.
These posts will offer a very different way to understand depression, and offer suggestions to help you break the cycle that can occur between compulsive personality and depression. However, I also want to make clear that if you are suffering from a serious depression you should consult a mental health professional for help through psychotherapy, medication or both.
The Potential Purpose and Value of Depression
Depression sometimes has a purpose. Especially if you’re compulsive or driven, it can be nature’s way of slowing you down when you’re going too far in one direction. Correctly understood, it has potential value.
While there is much to support this idea of depression having purpose, in this post I’ll be drawing on two very different sources to support it: psychologist and mood researcher Jonathan Rottenberg, and early twentieth century groundbreaking psychiatrist, Carl Jung.
Rottenberg has experienced major depression himself, and he’s published a book about the science of low mood: The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. He shares reams of data to back up the idea that there have been evolutionary benefits for low mood. Rottenberg questions the way depression is usually understood. He asks: Why is it that we’ve invested such huge resources in treating depression, but so many people are still so depressed?
Jung didn’t have the data at his disposal that Rottenberg did, but he somehow understood 100 years before that if we look for the potential purpose in “mental illness” we can contend with it in a much more holistic and successful way.
Both urge us to stop pathologizing depression and start listening to what it’s trying to tell us. It’s not a defect but a message.
The Evolutionary Benefits of Depression
Rottenberg’s basic argument is that low mood has had evolutionary benefits that have helped us to survive and develop, so it’s still a part of our psychology. Here are a few of the benefits:
- It discourages destructive conflict and sensitizes us to social risk. This was really important in the conditions in which we evolved: bands of 75 people struggling for survival. The better you get along, the more likely you are to survive.
- It discourages wasteful effort. When you hit a wall, when persistence becomes a liability, depression forces you to stop digging. It reduces the energy that would otherwise be wasted on futile goal pursuit.
- It slows us down so that we can actually concentrate more, and make better decisions about what is realistic. This can prevent calamity.
People who are driven can become possessed by an idea and become rigid and inflexible about it. It can cause unproductive interpersonal conflict, waste energy, and lead to bad decisions. Depression can lessen that tendency and can help us to slow down and reflect about what we’ve been so cocksure about.
Jung: Depression is the Unconscious Trying To Balance Us
Jung believed that the human psyche is a self-balancing, homeostatic system, or at least it can be if we aren’t cut off from the wisdom of the unconscious. So, if we get too rigid, a low mood can force us to re-evaluate how we’re living. He believed that depression is nature’s way of taking energy away from the conscious ego, and putting it in the unconscious so that we have to pay attention to what’s happening inside.
This is actually quite close to Rottenberg’s idea: depression forces us to reflect and it keeps us from crashing headlong into folly.
And Now–The Reality
But is this what depression is like for you? It makes many of us irritable, waste more time, and isolate. And better concentration? Yeah, right.
Both Rottenberg and Jung would acknowledge this. The purpose of low mood can go awry, for many reasons, including stress, anxiety and lack of sleep. If any of these are present, the natural course of a meaningful low mood can go wrong. This kind of situation could account for what Rottenberg calls deep depression, the disabling kind, as opposed to shallow depression, which can be more productive.
Rottenberg also points out that our overly ambitious culture has lead us to an epidemic of depression. Advertising, status, materialism and the idea that we can do or have anything we want all make us crave things we can’t do or have. It sets up entirely unrealistic expectations which inevitably make us depressed.
Here’s a fun fact that demonstrates the point: A 2005 study found that 31% of teenagers plan to be famous when they grow up. No wonder so many young adults get depressed in their twenties.
Depression swoops in to compensate and try to get us to slow down and mediate expectations. Whether it’s effective or not isn’t the point.
Depression is not like some sweet guardian angel taking care of us. Every evolutionary adaptation has its downsides. It’s an archaic, unconscious, clumsy and sometimes brutal tendency with little differentiation or subtlety. Just because it’s outdated doesn’t make it go away.
Further, depression might have been more effective in a tribe of 75 than it is in a country of 300 million. We no longer have the community support that it might have originally engendered.
We can’t be naïve about this. But an awareness of its original purpose can help us to deal with it more effectively.
What happened to chemical imbalances?
What happened to all that brain science about serotonin, chemical imbalances and stuff like that? Yes, some depression (for instance the kind that comes with bi-polar disorder and major depressive disorder) does seem to have a significant biological component. Medications are most effective in those cases.
But in less intense depression, the cause is more often how we think, behave, and invest our energy. Consider that in one study placebos were found to be 82% as effective as an anti-depressant.
Even in cases where there is a significant biological component, a less pathologizing approach to depression can help to ease it.
With awareness of the original purpose of low mood, we’re better equipped to understand its potential function and work our way back into a better mood. We can see where we need to slow down or moderate our drive. Our attitude toward the depression itself can determine how bad it becomes. If we are listening to what it has to tell us, its course will be far better than if we get more depressed about being depressed.
But this is easier said than done. In my next post I’ll explore more reasons that people who are compulsive get depressed, and what to do about it.
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