When we think of depression we often assume it to be a malaise that anyone would want to get rid of. However, depression has a number of “secret” benefits that can make it hard for many people to live without it. Famous Danish philosopher Soeren Kierkegaard captured this attachment when he referred to his depression as his "faithful mistress". So what are these benefits that can make it hard for a person to truly give it up?
Depression as a Survival Mechanism:
Recent research has documented that human beings can respond to stress in one of two ways. They can either activate the fight or flight system leading to symptoms of hypearousal (difficulty sleeping, racing thoughts, nightmares, a body ready and prepared to deploy). Or they can play dead, detach themselves, and make themselves small leading to symptoms of hypoarousal (numbness, averted gaze, compliance, a body surrendered to minimize the chance of harm).
Depression of course would fall in the category of hypoarousal.
Depression Protects You from Harm:
When I am depressed I am not a threat to anyone, I am not competing with them for limited resources. I have bowed out and bowed down. Others can’t put me down because I have already put myself down. Others won’t be able to cut me down publically because I am not even in the public arena to begin with having instead resigned myself to the inconspicuous shadows of existence. In other words, depression offers me protection. Since I don’t draw attention or present a threat to anyone the hope is that I would be left alone or that the appetite for someone else to make me the continued target would diminish.
I remember deploying this mechanism of self-protection myself during my adolescence when I became the target of criticism by my soccer teammates. When I would enter the soccer field I would feel like the weakest link on the team and this would expose me to criticism from my peers any time I would make a mistake or bring the team down with me due to one or the other lack of ability. I remember one team member in particular who was very angry with me after a game because he felt I was the reason why we lost. Instead of fighting back or standing my ground, which would have just made me more of a target, I automatically just agreed with him and even made deprecating remarks about myself. I paid a price for doing so by absorbing all the negativity, but the adaptive nature of my intuitive reaction was clear: As I was harder on myself than he was, his aggression wasn’t really necessary. It’s hard to be in boxing match with guy who is throwing punches against himself... and so he probably backed down and let me be in peace...
Depression Protects You from Disappointment:
Another way depression protects me is by lowering the intensity by which I experience life. If I don’t try for what I want I won’t get disappointed when I don’t get it. If I don’t put myself out there and follow my desires I won’t feel the pain of life’s downs and rejections because my desires were never on the line to begin with. By protecting myself from excitement I am not as vulnerable to life’s many ups and downs. Life cannot touch me in the same way because I am not fully living.
Many people who have gone through the pain and rejection of life’s many disappointments and just can’t take it anymore finally stop trying. Yes, life is now only experienced at half intensity, but that goes for the bad as well as the good.
One guy in therapy had felt so humiliated and bad about himself when he had risked making his attraction known to different females in high school that he had finally just shut down his desires so he didn’t have to feel the sting of not being chosen or not being good enough. He was now feeling very lonely but the loneliness was the price he paid for not feeling anxious and not risking rejection. Even though he fantasized about relationships and consciously wanted to escape from his own prison of isolation, he was unconsciously not ready to give up on the safety it provided. Imprisoning oneself behind a wall of protection is not an uncommon way to cope with the paradoxical risk/ reward profile of a life that offers no excitement without the risk of pain.
How To Get Rid of Your Depression:
Based on an overview of the hidden benefits of a depressed state of mind, the question remains: How do I get rid of my depression?
The question when phrased this way really isn’t the most helpful because it assumes that you can just yank it away without suffering some kind of loss
A better way to approach the issue is to acknowledge that there are pros and cons to depression and that both sides of the coin must be addressed to dissolve the tension that keeps it in place. As long as the benefits of depression are unaddressed the organism is going to resist any effort designed to take it away.
Taking away depression means inviting back excitement and visibility and with that exposure to possible pain and attack. The real question about depression therefore is: What needs to happen for a person to risk living life at a higher intensity of feeling or experience? What risks need to be mitigated? What potential adverse consequences need to be able to be tolerated or endured?
In my experience although therapy can help increase the tolerance for opening up to life again, life is ultimately what provides the ultimate push that undoes the grid-lock. The depressed person meets someone, gets an opportunity, is bestowed some kind of gain from life that pushes them beyond the status quo and gives them the final push they need to choose excitement over protection from pain.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a Houston psychologist offering therapy for depression.