Is Depression a Form of Adaptation?

Depression may really be an adaptation intended to help you cope with complex problems such like chronic illnesses or marriage breakups, according to researchers who developed a test to measure markers for depression such as analytical thinking and rumination.

The research shows a significant connection between answers to their 20-question test and analytical rumination.

Analytical rumination is a type of distraction resistant thinking that is characteristic of clinical and sub-clinical depression alike.

“Depression has long been seen as nothing but a problem,” says lead author Paul Andrews, assistant professor of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University. “We are asking whether it may actually be a natural adaptation that the brain uses to tackle certain problems. We are seeing more evidence that depression can be a necessary and beneficial adaptation to dealing with major, complex issues that defy easy understanding.”

Underlying Causes of Depressive Disorders

Clinical depression is, of course, a serious mental health concern. An understanding of the molecular and physiological underlying mechanisms could lead to more effective treatment.

There is no agreement among scientists currently on the root pathology of depressive disorders. Symptoms used for diagnosis of depression occur on a spectrum that ranges from mild to severe.

Nearly 600 subjects underwent a test that investigated which subjects were experiencing analytical rumination at varying levels of intensity. Researchers found a relationship between those results and subjects who were experiencing depressive symptoms.

Brain Resource Re-allocation

The results suggest that depression could be a natural state in which the mind automatically focuses on a complex issue to the point where it allocates resources to analyzing the problem at hand.

This re-allocation then diminishes concentration on other aspects of living, conceivably causing the disrupted eating, sleeping and social interaction associated with depression.

“We have a set of items that clinicians and researchers can use to understand how people with depression are thinking,” says Skye Barbic, of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “Based on how people answer our questions, we can tailor appropriate levels of care and supports. This set of questions can also inform completely different discussions between the clinician and the patient. Instead of discussing the disease as a ‘bad thing’, clinicians may be able to help patients have insight about the potential adaptive purposes of their thinking and how this may be used as a strength to move forward in their lives.”

The ability to quantify analytical rumination is a step toward developing new and possibly more productive ways of reducing the harmful effects of depression, researchers say.

“When working with many people who experience chronic health conditions, depression is often the limiting factor to recovery and goal attainment,” says Zachary Durisko, also of CAMH. “The test can potentially quickly tell us when people are struggling to identify their problems, trying to set goals, or trying to move forward in their lives. We hypothesize that very different levels of support and care are required throughout these different stages of thinking.”

For More Information:

Skye P. Barbic, Zachary Durisko, Paul W. Andrews.
Measuring the Bright Side of Being Blue: A New Tool for Assessing Analytical Rumination in Depression.
PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (11): e112077 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0112077

Nezu A (1986)
Efficacy of a social problem-solving therapy approach for unipolar depression.
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 54: 196–202. doi: 10.1037//0022-006x.54.2.196

Hamilton JP, Etkin A, Furman DJ, Lemus MG, Johnson RF, et al. (2012)
Functional neuroimaging of major depressive disorder: A meta-analysis and new integration of baseline activation and neural response data.
American Journal of Psychiatry 169: 693–703. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.11071105