More and more researchers across specialties are questioning our current definitions of depression. Biological anthropologists have argued that depression is an adaptive response to adversity and not a mental disorder.
According to the Polyvagal Theory of the autonomic nervous system, depression is part of a biological defense strategy meant to help us survive. This biological strategy is called immobilization, and it manifests in the mind and the body with a set of symptoms we call depression.
Our autonomic nervous system is constantly scanning our internal and external environment for signs of danger. If it detects a threat, its next strategy is the fight or flight response which we often feel as anxiety.
Sometimes the threat is so bad or goes on for so long, that the nervous system decides there is no way to fight or to flee. At that point, the nervous system goes into immobilization and turns down the metabolism to a resting state. That’s depression!
The Immobilization response is a key part of the biological defense:
If depression is the emotional expression of the immobilization response, then the solution is to move out of that state of defense, But how?
Removing the threat is not enough to move out of that state of defense. Rather, the nervous system has to detect robust signals of safety to bring the social state back online. The best way to do that is through social connection.
When people who are depressed learn that they are not damaged, but have a good biological system that is trying to help them survive, they begin to see themselves differently. After all, depression is notorious for the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. But if depression is an active defense strategy, people may recognize they are not quite so helpless as they thought.
It is time we start valuing the incredible capacity of our biology to find a way in hard times.
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