By Susan Pigg
Depression is an evolutionary device — the body’s way of telling us to stop wasting energy railing against things that can do us harm, be that a bad boss or a bleak winter, a mental health researcher says.
“It can be a deterrent the same way pain or fever is a defence. It protects you against situations where otherwise you would spend your energy and resources in a futile way,” said Dr. Benoit Mulsant, physician in chief at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Feeling blue is also the body’s red flag of survival, a signal to others that you are in distress and need their support, said Mulsant, who is also clinical director of geriatric care at CAMH.
He was speaking Tuesday to about 400 doctors and researchers from around the world at a two-day conference on emotions and the brain organized by the Rotman Research Institute and the Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit at Baycrest.
Mulsant stressed that he wasn’t referring to those who are clinically depressed, suffering a severe, prolonged downturn that makes it difficult to hold down a job or keep in touch with friends and requires treatment.
Instead he was referring to the far more common mild or “episodic” depression that results when you lose a spouse or a long-term relationship, or are struggling just to get through grey, winter days.
“In a climate where there’s less food and less resources outside, feeling less motivated and less energetic is an advantage. You are less likely to waste your time going to look for things that aren’t there,” he said in an interview.
Even the emotional process of mourning, which recent research has shown causes very real pain for the surviving spouse, ensures there is a quiet, recovery time. It also draws people to the person in distress, which increases their ability to go on and maybe even, in time, connect with a new love.
In other words, depression may be the body’s innate way of ensuring survival of the gene pool.
Mulsant take a decidedly glass half full approach to life, citing the example of two male gorillas in the jungle, fighting for the affection of the female.
“If you get defeated and you keep fighting, the male gorilla will kill you. But if you submit, you preserve your energy. He may be eaten by a lion in six months, then you get the female and you pass on your genes.”
But this isn’t all about the wilds of Africa. Mulsant brings his point much closer to home — right to the office, in fact.
“If you are in conflict with your boss and you keep fighting, at some point you are going to get fired and lose your job. If you lose your job, you will lose your income … maybe you will be starving.
“But if you submit and stop fighting, your boss may be fired in a year and you’ll be okay.”
Or, says Mulsant, the tears of frustration and pain of biting your tongue will be the ultimate red flag that it’s time to move on.