Thursday, March 11, 2010

Healing II: Adaptation

I read an article today about the role of adaptation in depressive illness, not just your ordinary blues, but debilitating depressive disorders:

It turns out that Charles Darwin himself suffered the blight of depression, describing himself as so undermined by his malady that he could not work one day out of every three. Darwin was unable to make sense of what might be a heritable disorder. He observed, that there was no adaptive value to being impeded by intense sadness. It made people unable to work, caused great pain, killed desire, and it sometimes led to suicide. It seemed to Darwin to be a mistake in the evolution of the brain.

Recently some psychiatrists interested in “evolutionary psychology” have taken a look at depression in a different light and tried to tease out what is adaptive about it. They raise questions on the efficacy of (anti-depressive) medication which may make you feel better but delay the resolution of underlying problems. Therapists are well acquainted with the phenomena: people on medication might feel better (and might not) but after awhile they seem to be more apathetic about their problems rather than energized in the search for solutions.

There is another useful way to look at adaptation, adaptation within the life cycle.

For instance a depressive response may be adaptive in childhood in a particular family. Some families prefer sad children over “bad” children. Depressed children don’t rock the boat quite so much as acting out children. Some children learn to keep very quiet so as not to ignite volatility in their parents, or anxiety in their parents. This is adaptive at the time. Later, not so much.

Depression is described by sufferers more often as an oppressive wet blanket sort of feeling, more of a heaviness, than a sadness. When unacceptable feelings are not safely expressed they need to be suppressed. Chronic suppression becomes depression.

I have a silly story, not a story about depression, a story about adaptation. When I was growing up we lived near a deep pond. The area around the pond was marshy (we called it “the swamp”). We were told that there was quicksand around the pond and to stay away. As I type this I remember vividly jungle-themed movies of people being swallowed in quicksand. Needless to say, I stayed away from the pond.

Fast forward: in my 20’s I heard my mother counsel a new neighbor who had adventuresome little boys, on how she had kept her children away from the pond by telling them there was quicksand around the pond. This would keep them safe.

In a flash I remembered that queasiness I always felt in "the swamp, even in winter when it supposedly froze (quicksand was said to freeze in winter!) and we went down there to ice skate. I never did learn to skate well.

I never remembered the source of the anxiety, only the anxiety. I was now 20 something and I had not revisited this story/memory and therefore never had an opportunity to revise. Until that moment deep inside I still believed it! I was stunned at how “unremembered” this memory was—“unremembered” but not disarmed.

And so it is with so many adaptations, what once kept us safe now keeps us stuck. There are probably no repercussions of the swamp-quicksand story, other than my failed skating career. But perhaps there are, my good girl adaptation borne of both fear and attachment to my mother maybe plays a hidden role in a risk averse lifestyle, a lifelong aversion to taking physical risks.

It was certainly important to keep us away from the pond. No one drowned. But if we don’t revisit early adaptations we are unable to revise. And a healthy life is all about the ability to revise.


  1. I definitely remember the great fear of coming upon quicksand ( as seen on wagon train many a time...) Physical risk taking diminishes with every year that goes by past 18 years old, but their are bigger risks out there to trial and it is so true that adapting in spite of what people (parents and friends) told you what you were and weren't capable of is the greatest empowerment we can experience. Empowering self decreases the power that depression can have over least those are my thoughts on the matter today.

  2. thanks, esie. i always look forward to your comments. i guess you remember the part about quicksand. i only remember the fear!