That excruciating feeling after a few rough, stressful weeks of feeling extremely tired. You might not want too much social interactions anymore. You feel emotionally numb, while also feeling unstable. You start thinking negatively about otherwise normal events or people, also even about yourself. Sound familiar?
Everybody has experienced an episode in their life where one felt down. This can happen after the loss of a loved one, a disappointment concerning regarding a promotion you didn’t get, the list goes on. It is a mere emotional response to some event in one’s life, you can say. You come across a lot of semi-philosophical, existential answers if you google as to why people experience down-episodes in their lives. ‘’What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness’’. This is a quote by American author John Steinbeck (1961) and is just one of many examples of quotes you can find on the internet regarding as to why there has to be a negative side of everything, in general. Without the negative, there is no positive, is the idea.
However, as innocent as a little-down period in one’s life might be, there could a more serious issue to this story. This happens when your down-period intensifies and stretches for a longer period of time, with more emotional suffering; depression. According to the World Federation for Mental Health, a sub-organization of the World Health Organization, depression is on the rise (World Federation for Mental Health, 2012, p. 2). That is, more and more people are getting depressed. Furthermore, they estimate that depression is now the third largest cause of morbidity in the world, and will become number one by 2030. Without a doubt, it speaks for itself that loss of life due to depression should be prevented at any cost.
Generally, it is assumed in evolutionary psychology that traits which are adaptive, will be selected by natural selection to be passed over to the next generation (Workman & Reader, 2014, p. 52). Despite its terrible effect, I will argue that depression might be adaptive. More specifically, I will argue that we benefit from a mechanism which is of importance to us, but makes us depressive when we attend to it in a wrong way. Also, I will provide a solution to our depression problem.
So, is depression adaptive? Let’s address this question by first looking at the mechanism behind it. If you sustain a physical injury, like breaking a leg after a traffic accident, you generally won’t continue your day as you planned. Instead, you take care of yourself, by going to the hospital and making sure it is casked. Your life will have a temporary new balance, because you have to adapt your way of living in accordance to the deficits your broken leg causes. You can’t ride a bike or do sports, because your leg needs rest. You change your behavior so that your balance can be restored.
This finding of a new balance also occurs you have a down-period as described above. Researchers hypothesize that this is due to a disturbance of the homeostatic regulation - the normal, calm state an individual wants to preserve it’s (normal) existence. (Pezzulo, Rigoli, & Friston, 2015, p. 18). If there is an event in your life which affects you emotionally, like the loss of a loved one, then your internal emotional homeostasis is disturbed. Your body is telling you that something is wrong and that your homeostasis needs to be restored. This will set in motion a mechanism which wants to restore the internal homeostasis. This restoration process is the down, depressive feeling that one gets after such an event. Essentially, it’s a healing process.
Thus, the depressive feeling after a bad episode in one’s life is the body’s way of saying that changes need to be made for the homeostasis to return to normal levels (Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987, p. 122). It is explained as a self-regulatory preservation process. And this is good! Take stress for example. When you experience an enormous amount of job-related stress, this homeostatic process will shift in such a way where you will feel tired and down, so that you will have to take a rest in order for your homeostasis to restore. In essence, you feel bad and can’t do much for a while, in order to heal. This process is called reactive depression.
However, you have a major problem as soon as you don’t get out of this homeostatic restoration process – you feel weak, tired and depressed for a long period of time. This is the point where researchers argue that you have become clinically depressed, instead of reactively depressed. There is a certain emotional dysregulation which results in the body not being able to come out of the restoration cycle (Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987, p. 122; Kanter, Busch, Weeks, & Landes, 2008, p. 7). This is the point where an adaptive healing process has become maladaptive.
Now that I discussed why clinical depression is an adaptive reaction gone awry, I want to include another variable to the equation. Namely, an interesting comparison that has been made is that clinical depression can be very similar to a burnout when it comes to outcome, as well as to its cause. (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2017). In burnout, usually an enormous amount of long-lasting job-related stress as well as bad coping is the cause, not a personal-affective event which could trigger the depression. However, when you apply the homeostatic, self-regulatory preservation to a burnout, you again can say that a burnout is the result of being in the homeostatic cycle for too long, without success. The body responds with feeling down, extreme exhaustion and reduced performance; this is also found in depression.
Much like depression which is rising in numbers, burnouts are also on the rise according to researchers from Nyenrode Business University (Muijen van & Melse, 2017, p. 20). They attribute this rise to both the growing economy, which creates more work, but also to an increase in work pressure per person.
To summarize, we have identified the preservative-adaptiveness of the homeostatic regulation, the benefits of reactive depression, and what happens when the homeostatic regulation goes wrong; depression and burnout. Now, I will discuss my proposed solution.
In order to stop our increasingly depressive and burnt-out population, we will have to start to listen to ourselves when we have a reactive depression in response to a life event or to job-related stress. That is, just like you would adapt your lifestyle when you break your leg, you will have to adapt your life when you have a reactive depression. We have to allow ourselves to feel bad, and basically rest in order to restore the equilibrium. In the ideal situation, one is simply able to take time off and actually go heal.
However, one can imagine that most employers are not fond of the idea to give employees time off. In addition, there still are a stigma among a lot of working professionals when it comes to burnout and depression. This stigma luckily seems to be decreasing (Stuart, 2016, p. 2). Employers lose enormous amounts of money to job-stress. In the Unites States alone, it is estimated to cost around 150 to 300 billion dollars a year (Nguyen, 2011). Therefore, giving employees some mental health-days off in order to let the homeostatic regulation restore itself, seems like a very cost-effective way to prevent depression and burnouts. To achieve this, steps have to be taken to further reduce the stigma, working-ethos will have to be changed, and the mental health of the employee should be put first. Maybe even mandatory free days determined by law.
In conclusion, depression and burnout are preventable conditions, caused by the inability to step out of the damaging regulatory homeostatic cycle when someone is stuck under enduring job-stress or bad life events. In response to this we should listen to our body and actually take a time-out. We should allow ourselves to feel bad and do nothing for a while, to let our body restore.
- Quote paper
- Fabian van der Meer (Author), 2018, Depressive Feelings and their Mechanisms, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/489408