The value of depression — By Al Galves

alThe below article is a submission by Al Galves. I’m honored to have him as a guest writer.

Al Galves is a retired psychologist who lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  He is the author of Lighten Up. Dance With Your Dark Side.  You can find him on his website here. His email address is: agalves2003@yahoo.com

The Value of Depression

The biggest problem with the conventional wisdom about mental illness is that it encourages people to ignore the meaning of the symptoms that are used to diagnose them.  That is a problem because it deprives people of vital information that can help them live more the way they want to live.

The conventional wisdom about mental illness is that it is caused by genetic factors, chemical imbalances and brain abnormalities.  If you believe that, you have no interest in exploring the meaning of the symptoms or listening to what they may have to tell you.  Rather, you are encouraged to get rid of the symptoms as quickly as possible and pay no further attention to them.

But what if those symptoms had important information for people, information they need in order to lead healthy, fulfilling lives?

If you believe in evolution and natural selection you would conclude that the symptoms must have some survival value, must be useful in some ways.  Were they not useful, they would have been wiped away by natural selection a long time ago.  After all, human beings have been evolving for about 30 million years, the estimated time since humans split off from the other members of the primate family.  Any human faculty which has lasted for 30 million years must be useful to our survival and well-being in some way.

If that is true, let’s look at some of the symptoms of mental illness and see how they might be useful to us.

Here are the symptoms that are used to diagnose the most common mental illness – depression.  (Yes folks, the symptoms that are listed below, and nothing else, are used by doctors and psychiatrist to diagnose clinical depression).  You would think – considering the conventional wisdom about mental illness – that there was a more “medical” way of diagnosing depression, a blood test or brain scan.  But no, the way it is diagnosed is the doctor, psychiatrist or other mental health professional asks the patient to give a self report on the following questions:

Have you felt sad or empty most of the day, nearly every day for the past two weeks?

Have you experienced a markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day for the past two weeks?

Have you experienced significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (a change of more than 5 % of body weight in a month) or increase or decrease in appetite nearly every day for the past two weeks?

Have you experienced insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleep) nearly every day for the past two weeks?

Have you experienced psychomotor agitation (jittery, jerky, jumpy stomach) or retardation (slowed down, sluggish, groggy) nearly every day for the past two weeks?

Have you felt fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day for the past two weeks?

Have you experienced feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day for the past two weeks?

Have you experienced diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day for the past two weeks?

Have you experienced recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide?

If the patient responds “Yes” to five or more of those questions and if those symptoms are causing significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning, the patient is diagnosed with clinical depression.

So if we assume that these symptoms must have some survival value, how might they be useful?  What might be going on with a person who is experiencing these symptoms?  It sounds as if s/he is very upset about something.  Something is not going right in her life.  Something is threatening her ability to live the way she wants to live, to love the way she wants to love, to work (express herself) the way she wants to work.  Something precious has been lost.  He is concerned about his life, where it is going.  Is it the job, the relationship, the kids, the demands of parenting, his social status?  He’s not going to live forever.  Maybe he needs to do something about it.

It sounds as if s/he’s under a lot of stress or, perhaps shutting down after being under a lot of stress for a long time.  Perhaps this is the body’s way of protecting itself from prolonged stress.  There are worse things that could happen – a heart attack, a stroke, cancer.  In fact, research has found a strong link between high levels of stress and depression.

This sounds like a wake-up call, a message that something is not right and something needs to be done about it.  The bodymind is saying:  “Stop doing what you’re doing.  Stop focusing on the outer world, on other people, on your spouse, your clients.  It’s time to quiet down, go inside, take a serious look at your life, get in touch with what is going on.  Stop avoiding this by drinking, drugging, working, playing, sexing, competing, winning.  You need to make some important decisions or, perhaps, accept what is true about you and your life and become more comfortable with it.  You need to do some inner work.”

Perhaps this is a reaction to the loss of something that is very precious to us.  It wouldn’t have to be the loss of a person, a job, financial security or a relationship.  It might be the loss of youth, or certainty or a sense of comfort.  If something precious has been lost, perhaps it would be healthy to spend some time experiencing the pain of that loss.

How could the painful experience of loss be helpful?  If I believe that all human faculties which have survived through the 30 million years of human evolution have to be useful, that is an obvious question.  And an answer that makes sense comes to me.  Loss is useful because it tells me what is precious to me.  It tells me what I want to protect and nurture and tells me in a very powerful way that I better do what I can to protect and nurture those precious things.  Valuable information indeed.

What if depression is a state of being that forces people to take a look at their social relationships and that gives them impetus to do something about changing them?  That is the hypothesis of Paul Watson, a behavioral ecologist at the University of New Mexico:

It induces us to be attentive to the structure of our social network: Who has power? Who has what opinions? How do these opinions of different social partners interact to constrain or enable us to make changes in life?  Depression may have a social planning function which helps us to plan active negotiating strategies in a sober, ruminative state so we can go out and actively negotiate ourselves into a better social position with the people who have power to help or hinder us.

Edward Hagen, an evolutionary biologist, has a similar idea.  In the ancestral situation, when humans lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, depression may have had value in compelling other people in one’s life to make changes that were in one’s interest – to induce the members of one’s tribe to come to one’s aid.

In his book Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore has a chapter entitled “Gifts of Depression”.  Here is one of them:

Depression grants the gift of experience not as a literal fact but as an attitude toward yourself.  You get a sense of having lived through something, of being older and wiser.  You know that life is suffering, and that knowledge makes a difference.  You can’t enjoy the bouncy, carefree innocence of youth any longer, a realization that entails both sadness because of the loss, and pleasure in a new sense of self-acceptance and self-knowledge.  This awareness of age has a halo of melancholy around it, but it also enjoys a measure of nobility.

Medical researcher Antonio Damascio found that people who couldn’t feel bad couldn’t make good use of their reasoning powers.  In his book Descarte’s Error, he describes his work with people who couldn’t process feelings because of lesions in the amygdalas of their brains.  Not being able to feel bad, they were unable to make good decisions about their finances, business practices, relationships, etc.  They might buy a stock and see that it was losing value.  But, not feeling bad about it, they wouldn’t take any corrective action.

But wait a minute.  Let’s not get too sanguine about this.  Depression is associated with suicide.  It is a very debilitating disease.  Severe depression keeps people from doing any of the things that make life worth living – loving, working, playing, expressing, enjoying.  Let’s be careful not to make light of a serious illness.

Yes, we need some balance here.  Perhaps, depression is like many things which are good and useful in moderate amounts but dangerous and deathly in extreme amounts.  Included in that list would be the stress response, alcohol, strychnine and water, among others.  Perhaps what makes sense is to make a distinction between moderate depression and severe depression.  Perhaps, keeping severely depressed people from killing themselves, hurting others or falling into permanent disability calls for extreme measures – psychotropic drugs, treatment in psychiatric hospitals.

Balance makes sense.  But that’s not where we are today.  Today, more and more people respond to symptoms of moderate depression by ingesting antidepressant drugs, drugs which make it harder for them to experience the emotions and thoughts which might be valuable to them.  Antidepressants are among the five most heavily prescribed drugs in the United States.  People are going to psychiatrists and other doctors.  The doctor asks them what is wrong.  They say, “I’m depressed” and the doctor writes a prescription.  There is no time spent exploring what might be going on in the person’s life or how they are responding to their lives that might explain the symptoms.

And it’s not merely that the drugs keep people from receiving valuable information they could use to live happier lives.  They also have powerful side-effects, including impairment of sexual functioning and increased risk of violence and suicide and withdrawing from them is much harder than we’ve been lead to believe.

So how do we explain the willingness of so many Americans to use these drugs?

Several possibilities come to mind.  From time immemorial, human beings have been ingesting substances that make them feel better.  Witness the use of mescaline, peyote and mushrooms by ancient cultures and the use of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines in today’s world.  Ingesting a substance is a lot easier than wrestling with one’s demons and then having to do something difficult and scary in response to the insights gained from that process.

Perhaps this is the shadow side of scientific medicine.  Medical researchers and doctors have made some miraculous advances.  They’ve conquered polio, malaria, small pox and syphilis.  They can transplant hearts, lungs, and kidneys.  They’ve developed medicines that reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.  Now, they’ve developed drugs that cure mental illness.  At least, that’s what people have been led to believe.  In fact, almost all of the psychotropic drugs are only slightly more effective than placebo and have very damaging side effects.  And, since they don’t address the fundamental cause of the symptoms that cause mental illnesses, they don’t cure anything.  They impair some of the most valuable of human faculties.  But they do appear to be another notch in the gun of scientific medicine.

Or maybe this is another example of the cult of professionalism, the belief that the experts know best.  After all, they have advanced degrees so they must be very smart.  So we put our trust in psychiatrists and other doctors.  If they think these drugs are good for us, they must be.

The danger of both scientific medicine and the cult of professionalism is that they may cause us to lose faith in the brilliance and power of nature, to lose trust in the ability of our bodyminds to heal themselves and to ignore the valuable information that our emotions and bodily sensations can provide to us.

So I might do well to pay attention to these depressive symptoms, to see what I can learn from them and to use them to become healthier and hardier and to live more the way I want to live.

Of course, most of us don’t have the luxury of taking off two or three days to contemplate our navels.  But we could find some time during every day to quietly allow ourselves to experience what is going on inside.  We could even take some vacation time or sick leave to spend several days on it, perhaps with the help of friends or a therapist.

If you decide to do that, here are some suggestions.

I would recommend that you find a psychotherapist to work with, somebody with whom you feel comfortable, who you sense will respect you and help you come up with your own answers.  There is something healthy about being able to say things to another human being that you have not said to anyone else, to let your hair down and expose yourself, knowing that nothing you say or do will go out of the room.

I would recommend that you spend some time just sitting by yourself in quietness, perhaps using some of the simple relaxation or meditation exercises that you can find on the internet or in various books.  Just sitting and noticing whatever thoughts or feelings come up and paying some attention to them – not necessarily hanging onto them or doing anything with them  – just noticing them.

I would recommend that you do some things that are enjoyable – perhaps reading books or articles that you want to read and definitely getting some good exercise – running, walking, bicycling, swimming, skiing.

The bottom line is that I urge you to regard the symptoms, no matter how painful and debilitating,  as a message of meaning, a message that contains valuable information that can help you live a healthier and more satisfying life.  And I encourage you to make an effort to understand the meaning of the symptoms and to use the information they offer to live more the way you want to live.

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20 Responses

  1. “What if depression is a state of being that forces people to take a look at their social relationships and that gives them impetus to do something about changing them?”

    Amen. This statement sums up what has been happening with me. In order for me to do work that I found too stressful and to avoid dealing with a parents suicide I ended up on psych meds. Now that I am (as of today) off them and out of that stressful line of work people are commenting on how calm and happy I seem. And I really am. I’m scared about working for myself but at the same time have not been this happy in… I can’t remember when.

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  2. Van

    Al and Gianna – this is an outstanding bit a writing, one that is quite significant to me as the topic is what I’ve really been looking at the last several months.

    First off, I came to the conclusion some time ago that medication was not the path for me because of a number of reasons. The big one was that I would simply be masking my problems, and not addressing/listening to what is really going on in my life.

    “Perhaps, depression is like many things which are good and useful in moderate amounts but dangerous and deathly in extreme amounts.”

    I could not have said it better than this.

    Thank you both for this article.

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  3. Dennis

    It’s comforting to hear some of the things I’m discovering along my path. I’m coming off psych meds and regaining the ability to listen to what my body and mind are telling me. I know the body has an incredible power to heal itself. Great article thank you so much for sharing the knowledge.

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  4. Great article, thanks Gianna and Al.

    Right now I’m going through perhaps my worst experience of depression, ever. The most crushing. The most intense and painful. And yeah, its occured to me that unless I take a good solid look at myself and my life, things aren’t going to get better.

    I’ve been getting help for dealing with being assaulted and in fact I think much of that is under control now. But one of the ongoing side-effects is being prone to depressive episodes, I see that now.

    So while its a struggle – and one I face without medication – I do think its better for me to face this stuff than to keep putting it off. There is value in depression, once you can get past the all-consuming, over-whelmingness of the experience in the first place.

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  5. Grainne Humphrys

    I love this article. The symptoms of depression do have survival value, they alert us to what is not fitting us in our lives anymore… maybe we have outgrown a way of being or maybe something is trying to emerge. As pain-avoiders us humans tend to want to medicate those symptoms away, too casually. Unfortunately, drug companies know this and use it in their marketing ploys, peddling their bad medicine. What if we welcomed the symptoms of depression in as guests who had some important, life-changing information for us. What if we listened to our messages from the depths of our being? What if it was safe to be depressed, but in our drug-addled/ labelling culture it is not. What if depression was seen as a letting go and had a rite of passage? If those who got depressed were honoured as they embarked on their brave and painful journey?

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  6. Grainne Humphrys

    Just to add (this article has got me inspired!) depression is a normal response to some of the difficult circumstances life serves up and with depression comes the pain of growth. Depression can include the ‘suffering of the soul’. Of course, when depression is severe, debilitating and incapacitates one so much so that they no longer function then I can understand why many seek some relief in the form of medication. Maybe meds have a role as a ‘bridge’ or as temporary ‘relief’ for a time, untill one feels stronger to engage in the painful, but empowering, work of the soul.

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  7. Aida Phelops

    A brilliant article and so true.

    To me depression is a way of taking stock of our lives, giving the body and mind time to recover from a situation that is distressing us, in order to develop and evolve.

    I have always thought this and find it so refreshing to see that I am not alone.

    I used to facilitate a support group for women suffering from depression and, many times, felt inspired by the way some of the women dealt with their distress. I will always remember one of the ladies saying that although things feel so bad, when you are in that “black hole”, it is not really such a bad place to be. Firstly, it’s a brave place to be. Secondly, it’s only from that darkness that one can emerge into a better, more fulfilled life.

    Also, when you’ve done this once, without the help of medication, it is never so bad when you’re back in that dark place again, because you know that you will get better and be well again. Good friends, who understand and accept you, will help you remember this when you feel that you’ve sunk so low that you won’t get back up again.

    Once again, a really refreshing article.

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  8. This is a great article. I strongly agree that finding meaning in our experiences is the path to a better life. While it is true that depression far too often leads to suicide, where are the studies of those who have found meaning in their experiences? My guess is that when they study those of us who understand depression instead of avoiding it, they will find the suicide rate is dramatically decreased.

    Tom Wootton
    Author of “The Depression Advantage”

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    1. My guess is that when they study those of us who understand depression instead of avoiding it, they will find the suicide rate is dramatically decreased.

      yeah, I’d be willing to wager on that one! the more we run and hide the scarier it gets.

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  9. Everyone,
    I just stopped and thought about all your comments and what an awesome bunch of folks you all are!!

    I’m grateful that you are all in my life.

    I’m grateful Al wrote this beautiful article and spoke to so many of us.

    And I’m grateful you’ve all spoken to me.

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  10. Pat

    Thanks for going out of your way to share this with me. It’s very thought provoking. Kind of reminds me of some of the things the Prophet said in the chapter on Pain.

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  11. Wonderful piece, Al, very thoughtful and beautifully expressed. Thank you.

    Thomas Moore’s work was and is very influential on me. I discovered him in my early 20s and it was the first time I had ever heard the idea that there is value in melancholy.

    I think the word depression is very illuminating. In my experience it is literally something that has been stuffed down, pressed down, some part of ourselves that is crying to be heard – making itself known through pain because it has been ignored for so long. If only we were taught to honor the darkness.

    Moore has another great book called Dark Nights of the Soul that really puts melancholy into perspective as an initiation, if we let it move us through to a deeper place, if we are willing to take the journey. When I let the emotions actually move, instead of shutting them down or getting mired in them, I am guided to somewhere I never could have imagined.

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  12. Wow! That is some of the best ‘new stuff’ I have read on depression for awhile. It is wonderful to have some new incites on an old condition. Thank you for sharing this. I have made a copy and plan to look up more of Al’s books, plus added your blog to my favourites!

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  13. I’m blown away by the wisdom expressed in these comments. It is heartening to know there are people who are willing to go through the pain of depression and learn what it has to teach them. Thank you all.

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  14. This is a wonderful article. Thank you for sharing it. I tell people the things in the article, but people often disagree and some get angry. It’s good to see someone with a medical background saying these things. People really do not face their demons. In AA I have found a loving place with loving people who allow me to express all my thoughts. I should be grateful, and I am.
    Thanks again,
    Jim S

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  15. […] In our culture, we are taught to fear and avoid any kind of pain.  We are taught to eradicate it by any means possible.  Of course, we are all human, and most of the time we do prefer to live without pain and suffering. But there are some kinds of pain that serve a purpose.  Labor is certainly pain with a purpose, and much of our emotional distress also serves important purposes, as Al Galves recently wrote about here. […]

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