Depression as an Adaptive Strategy

Depression is an adaptive life strategy that looks and feels like anything but adaptive. So, here’s how that works.

According to psychiatrists Stevens and Price, whether we have lost an attachment and may feel alone and unloveable, or have lost standing somehow and feel like a loser in the game of life—what can follow is a process that results in:

…the loss of energy, depressed mood, sleep disturbance, poor appetite, retarded movements, and loss of confidence which are the typical characteristics of depression (p.71).

What’s adaptive about that, you ask? Well, back in the day when the modern human brain was forming, group belonging and cohesiveness was crucial to our safety and survival, e.g., access to food, sex, and a safe place to sleep.

Back then, so the theory goes, there may have been a period of yielding or accepting the new circumstance, a kind of laying low—both to maintain the all-important group cohesion and to keep from being thrown out.

So, it’s baked in. We are stuck with it, some more than others, but it happens to many. It comes on involuntarily, and there is no telling when it will ever go away. From Mental Health America:

Over 8 in 10 people who took a depression screen have scored with symptoms of moderate to severe depression consistently since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

There are many types of depression, and other statistics too, that you can read about on the internet. But let’s just say here that there is way too much of what began as an adaptive strategy going on now. And going on for too long too.

Effects of Depression

Researchers at University of California San Francisco found that “depression in early adulthood may lead to lower cognition 10 years later and to cognitive decline in old age”. The odds of older adult cognitive decline were up by 73% for those who had been depressed in young adulthood, and 43% for those depressed in later life.

We also know from psychologist Zindel Segal that it feeds on itself; research shows that prior episodes are the best predictors of more to come.

Depression increases and releases stress hormones that damage the brain, with the potential to massively affect other areas of our lives. According to the CDC:

…depression causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year at the cost of $17 billion to $44 billion to employers. Half of the employees with depression are untreated. Depression impacts the rate of absenteeism, cause of disabilities, loss of productivity, and climate in the workplace. 

Wait, half of employees with the condition go untreated. Yeah, that’s a problem. So, what can we do?

What Can Help?

Anyone suffering major depression, especially with suicidal ideation, should contact their doctor at once. That said, for milder types of depression that could be more manageable on one’s own, here is a list from on ways in which “Self-Care” can help:

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol.
  • Be kind to yourself. You’re doing the best you can with the resources you have.
  • Eat healthy, nutritious foods. Eating well may help improve your physical and mental health.
  • Get exercise and fresh air. Getting out of the house for a walk can reduce feelings of isolation and boost your endorphins (mood hormones.)
  • Talk to a family member or trusted friend. Having support from someone who cares can help you feel less alone in your struggles.
  • Sleep well. Getting enough sleep can be restorative for both your body and mind.
  • Treat yourself. Do something you enjoy each day — take a bubble bath, read a book, listen to your favorite music.

And here are some articles I’ve written on the benefits of exerciseplayearlier wake-up, and Tylenol too. Not kidding. Research shows that Tylenol helps the brain with social rejection, often the cause.

And, last but not at all least, there is meditation, which can help by calming the stress response triggering the depression—unless meditation stirs memories that feel too hard to handle at the time.

What’s most important is that the depression not be ignored. In the words of Viktor Frankl:

Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.

We hear a lot of talk these days about ‘long haul’ for Covid. And apparently there can be ‘long haul’ for depression too. So, if you are feeling depressed, please don’t ignore you. Make sure you respond.

Warm wishes,


Photo by Unsplash Alan de la Cruz