What if Depression Serves a Purpose?

It's not an exact science. Doctors currently rely on patient interviews to diagnose depression. . (Photo: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock)

Depression is so common — about 1 out of every 6 people experience it during their lives — that most of us have first-hand experience with it, whether going through it ourselves or with someone we care about. In response to the deep suffering and sadness that is depression's hallmark, it's natural to try to feel better quickly and by any means necessary. But some psychologists working on a new hypothesis about depression suggest we slow down and go through the process thoughtfully instead.

Depression is defined as a "period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image," according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Reading that list, it's understandable that our reaction to depression would be to limit suffering. Depressive episodes are called "breakdowns" for a reason; for the person experiencing it, and to the people around them, it's a prolonged period that can keep sufferers from working (or performing well), taking care of their kids, attending school, or even eating and sleeping.

As disturbing as such a breakdown can be, some psychologists are investigating the possibility that, while awful, depression is a useful state that enables the mind to focus on processing difficult emotions. And we may want to consider that theory to inform how depression is treated.

A forced coping mechanism

Woman feeling sad, crying in pillow
A new theory proposes that depressive episodes force the person affected to dedicate real time and significant mental resources to dealing with emotional trauma. (Photo: Stock-Asso/Shutterstock)

Paul Andrews is an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Canada. His analytical rumination hypothesis proposes that a depressive episode is a way to slow down and enable a sustained analysis of those problems that trigger most depressive episodes — losing a job, experiencing a breakup or losing a family member or friend. (Of course, not all depressive episodes fit this set of circumstances, but most do.)

As Andrews writes in a 2009 paper, a depressive episode gives "(a)... the triggering problem prioritized access to processing resources, (b) reducing the desire to engage in distracting activities (anhedonia), and (c) producing psychomotor changes that reduce exposure to distracting stimuli." Each of the hallmarks of depression has a function — it forces the person affected to dedicate real time and significant mental resources to dealing with emotional trauma.

The depression is time aside to intensively analyze, understand, contextualize and untangle complicated feelings and events — and figure out how to do better next time. This is valuable time spent in the course of a life and requires both quiet time and rest (depression sufferers often spend more time in REM sleep, which is when the brain consolidates and organizes memories). This time for rumination and sadness can, in turn, lead to sustained healing in the depressed person around the event that caused their sadness.

This hypothesis would explain the rise of depression over the last 30 years. With more ways to distract, ignore and cover up difficult emotional issues, and a faster pace of life than ever before, time for rumination is short. Maybe we are being "forced" more often by the mind's need to enter a different mental state to be able to deal with our challenges.

A shift in understanding, not treatment

Therapist and patient
Behavior and problem-solving therapy can help people who are depressed work through it and potentially shorten the duration of their depression. (Photo: George Rudy/Shutterstock)

Now, just because depression may have its uses doesn't mean it's less painful, deserves less attention or should be taken less seriously. It's simply a shift in understanding of what might be going on in our brains.

The analytical rumination hypothesis also doesn't mean there's "nothing to be done" about depression. The point is that for the majority of people, dealing with the fundamental triggering issue is important.

“Cognitive behavioral and problem-solving therapies may work precisely because they tap into and accelerate — in a matter of weeks — the very processes that have evolved to occur over the space of months," Steven Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University told Nautilus. So there's certainly a way to work through and potentially shorten the time that one is depressed, but it may be important not to short-circuit or ignore that process, which is why dosing a depression with drugs (especially painkillers like alcohol) might not be the best way through. You wouldn't try to heal a badly broken arm with painkillers without setting it straight first, protecting it in a cast and doing physical therapy as part of the healing process.

Putting a depressive episode into the framework of the analytical rumination hypothesis also shifts how the person experiencing it understands what is happening to them, which is arguably more empowering. It also makes those painful feelings and dark nights a bit easier to bear if they're seen as a process as opposed to a breakdown or failure. While this new idea about depression still has some way to go before being accepted, it opens the door to new ways of thinking about an illness that has affected human beings throughout history and will no doubt affect someone you know in the future.