A great deal is made about depression these days. But what this new media narrative misses is that it’s OK to be sad sometimes. In fact, some would say that being sad can actually be a good thing…
Depression is a real thing, no doubt
Disclaimer up front. Depression is real. It sucks. And it hits people in all sorts of ways. The DSM V (the psychiatrists’ bible on mental health issues) identifies 8 and so does the ICD 10 (the European version; that’s a pdf by the way). None of those include subtypes with comorbid mania (like bipolar disorder). If you or someone you know is down in the dumps for ages, or if things get really bad, then it’s probably a good idea to reach out for help.
But the very fact that there are so many different kinds of depression hints at something deeper. Why do different people experience it differently? A common analogy for many mental health issues is the cup. Picture a cup. It’s got some water in it. That water is your genetic predisposition toward a given mental health problem (in this case, depression). When a stressful life event comes along, it fills that cup with more water. If it’s big enough, or if enough of them happen at once before you can deal with them (drink that water up) then the cup runneth over. Makes sense right? Well let’s extend that cup analogy a little further and explain why depression might look so different from person to person.
Being sad is normal
In 2006, two psychologists by the name of Keller and Nesse came up with a theory so straightforward that it makes you grit your teeth that it took so long to come to light. They called it the situation-symptom congruence hypothesis. Basically, they argue that depressive symptoms are an adaptive evolutionary response to characteristic challenges of adverse life events. This means that the kind of stressful life event we have determines what kind of sad we get.
For a long time now, Nesse has theorised that moods are a mechanism developed over the course of evolution that motivates us to manage our resources better. In this case, low mood (sad type feelings) motivates us to “conserve resources and reconsider options”. These kinds of feelings are triggered by a loss of or some kind of percieved threat to things that matter to us. Keller and Nesse updated this by saying that the different kinds of low mood are patterns of feelings that help us to respond to specific kinds of threat or loss.
Different situations lead to different kinds of sadness
Keller and Nesse identify 11 different situation-mood type matches. For example guilt, fatigue, and pessimism seem to come after we’ve failed at something; crying and sadness seem to follow social losses (like a death in the family). More interestingly, the research they’ve conducted on the theory seems to show that these specific patterns of feelings are quite stable in relation to the type of situation. The point of these specific types of depressive symptoms are thought to motivate us to behave in ways that help us claw back those lost resources, or sort our situation out. Take the failure example from earlier; the guilt and fatigue type symptoms are thought to encourage us to take time to reflect more conservatively on what happened and so make us more successful in future. The crying and sadness after a loss motivate us to seek out social support and draw others to us.
Others have taken the baton and run with it. Another researcher by the name of Nettle thoughtfully notes that while depressive symptoms may assist one to conserve resources in a time of loss, severity may eventually require us to jump into action. He suggests such symptoms as restlessness, dysphoric mania and impulsive urges which could act in this way. This neatly extends the theory to cover bipolar type disorders and some of the symptoms that have been more problematic for researchers to explain. The same kind of thinking has already started to pervade anxiety research; we know that anxiety is a normal emotion that focuses us on threatening situations. Take rejection sensitivity for example. Being really sensitive to when people shut you down could probably help you figure out when you’re getting cut out from the pack.
But it’s not the whole story
The whole premise of Keller and Nesse’s argument is that depressive symptoms are evolutionarily based. That over time, these kinds of reactions to situations have helped people overcome adversity in times gone past. But not all depressive symptoms intuitively lend themselves to loss-type situations and these symptoms are conspicuously absent from their research. More to the point, they don’t explain why some people experience these symptoms to the point that they can’t function at all anymore (what we’d call a depressive disorder or episode). If depressive symptoms are supposed to be helpful, this is kind of counter-intuitive.
So what’s the point?
Let’s go back to the cup analogy. If we imagine that we can fill the cup with different liquids we can start to see why some people experience depression differently. Fill that thing up with olive oil and you’ll spend ages trying to clean that spill up. Fill it with cordial and your table will smell fruity for days to come. Lots of situations can be enough to fill your cup up too fast to deal with and when the cup starts to spill, it’s time to get help. But different situations make people sad in different ways, so maybe that will determine the kind of help you look for (or the kind of help you give to someone who’s come to you).
The old adage ‘is the cup half empty or half full’ takes a whole new light doesn’t it? Seems like it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. We just need to worry when the level starts to rise…
If you’re feeling down in the dumps, it’s time to be selfish and look out for yourself. Don’t worry though, being selfish can be a good thing. While we’re on the topic of evolution, learn why your ancestors are the reason you can’t get rid of the crap in your garage. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.