We keep considering depression to be an illness, but what if it comes to save us?
According to Wikipedia, depression is “a state of low mood and aversion to activity.” Merriam Webster describes it as “a state of feeling sad,” or “a mood disorder that is marked by varying degrees of sadness, despair, and loneliness.”
However, as Psychology Today notes, more and more experts are arguing that depression is not a mental disorder but an adaptive response to adversity.
A report on depression, conducted by the British Psychological Society, claims that “depression is best thought of as an experience, or set of experiences, rather than as a disease.” Meanwhile, neuroscientists are emphasizing the role of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in depression.
A theory suggests that depression is part of a biological defense strategy meant to help us survive.
The Polyvagal Theory of the ANS, first presented in 1994 by the neuroscientist Stephen Porges, states that depression actually happens for a good reason.
The way we see this mental health condition is that it starts with distorted thinking, which leads to psychosomatic symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue. Contrarily, the Polyvagal Theory and other similar models imply that it is the body that detects danger and launches a defense strategy meant to help us overcome it. The so-called immobilization that alerts the mind and the body with a series of symptoms is what we know as depression.
Sadly, we, as a society, often stigmatize those struggling with depression, as we associate this condition with weakness. In our minds, their way of coping with adversity is nothing but unnecessary suffering. Only when we begin to understand depression, or we experience it ourselves, we become more empathetic, as we finally see that it happens for a good reason.
If you are suffering from depression, know that you are not damaged – you are a survivor!
You are a survivor because you are not afraid to face your feelings. You are a survivor because, even in times of hopelessness, you are still moving forward.
As Porges describes, our daily experience is based on a hierarchy of states in the ANS. When the autonomic nervous system feels secure, we experience calmness and we feel free to be ourselves. On the other hand, if it detects a lack of safety, it instantly fights back, which often leads to anxiety attacks. That’s when our minds and bodies initiate a process of immobilization.
The immobilization response is our original biological defense. It works by turning down the metabolism to a resting state, which explains why we sometimes faint and we become inactive when we are depressed. In fact, some specialists argue that this gradual decrease of metabolism could actually accelerate healing in severe illness.
Ideally, the immobilization response is a short-term process. However, in some cases, it lasts much longer. When that happens, it inevitably affects our emotions and our problem-solving abilities. What is why, when we are depressed, we feel as if we are unable to move neither physically nor mentally.
Why does immobilization affect people with less obvious adversity?
To answer this question, we must first acknowledge that the way the body sees depression is entirely different from the way society sees it. Practicing mental toughness and being patient doesn’t work for everyone. That’s because the body doesn’t react according to the actual nature of the trigger. It responds when it detects a threat, and it often happens before we think about it.
Unfortunately, today’s world is full of anxiety triggers. Our nervous system is constantly on the verge of falling apart. So, naturally, as our bodies are continually in a state of detecting danger, they decide they can’t get away. And as they do, they initiate the immobilization response.
Porges believes that our perception of depression actually represents a cluster of emotional and cognitive symptoms that sits on top of a physiological platform in the immobilization response. Therefore, it is a natural strategy that helps us survive adversity. When the body detects risk, it takes action towards saving us. Hense, depression, in its essence, happens for a good reason.
How to shift out of immobilization?
To exit the state of immobilization, Porges advises that the nervous system needs to detect robust signals of safety. Simply removing the threat is not enough to shift out from the defense position.
One of the best ways to overcome this state is to socialize. Surrounding yourself with people who support you and understand your condition without judgment can immensely help you triumph over depression.
Hopefully, society will soon realize that depressed people are not damaged or impaired and will start treating them as survivors. It takes courage to face your emotions and let them flow through you. It takes strength to overcome all the mentally tiring hardships on our way. So we must stop shaming those struggling with depression and start empathizing with their pain and helping them get through.