The Holy Trinity of Human Survival – Part 3 Depression
Anxiety, Anger and Depression – The Holy Trinity of Human Survival – P3
Written by Graham McDowell – Mindfulness Coach, Solution Focused Hypnotherapist & Psychotherapist and Founder of Monkey Mind Ltd, a company that provides organisations and individuals with specialist resources to measure, understand and improve mental wellbeing. In this three part series, I hope to make the case for why anxiety, anger and depression, ought to be considered as the holy trinity of human survival, instead of being exclusively spoken of as unwanted illnesses or disorders.
Now if you’ve read the first two articles on anxiety and anger, you will remember that in order to explain them, we went back 10,000 years to visit an ancient ancestor so lets now do the same to explore the experience that we have called depression. So, imagine again your ancestor waking up in a cave somewhere, pulling off the animal skin rug and starting their day and when they look outside of the cave there’s something going on that they don’t like. Maybe there’s snow everywhere so there is no food to gather or maybe there’s a drought or a battle going on but whatever it is, the world at that moment is not a place they want to interactive with. What would they do? Remember they had no way of preserving food so they would need to conserve their resources, perhaps for days or even weeks. So, they’d probably crawl back under the animal skin rug and stay there until whatever was going on in the world had changed and it was once again a safe, welcoming place for them to be. They would stay still and quite literally depress their systems in order to conserve energy; kind of like human hibernation. Again, we can see that this is a vital survival mechanism which helped ensure your ancestors could get through difficult periods and which ultimately, allowed your family line to continue it’s existence. Our systems are designed to manage short-term periods of depression, anxiety and anger, but the problem comes when we highjack these natural states and turn them into long-term behaviours. You see the neurotransmitters that we have spoken of, are continuously produced by the body in response to our thoughts and actions and some are delivered to us as a reward. Look at it like this, if you were in charge of evolution and you wanted this funny looking species called humans to thrive and survive how would you go about it? Well the species needs to procreate so you’d better make sex feel good otherwise they won’t bother with it and humanity will be doomed. Then you realise that for these tribes to thrive, they need to work together, so you better make it feel good to help others. And all these people will need food and shelter so you better give a feel good reward to those who provide for others and these good feelings come from neurotransmitters and endorphins with serotonin being chief among them. But what would happen if all these individuals just went off to live by themselves in their own caves, not communicating with others, not helping others, not being part of the tribe? Well humanity wouldn’t thrive so in these cases we better hold back these feel good neurotransmitters such as serotonin. And that’s pretty much how evolution has set things up, so the way we feel on a day-to-day basis is largely determined by the quality of our thoughts, actions and interactions. In simple terms, if you choose to have positive thoughts, positive actions and positive interactions you are likely to feel pretty good, regardless of the material circumstances of your life. But equally, if you choose to have negative thoughts, actions and interactions, then you are likely to feel pretty bad, regardless of the material circumstances in your life. One of the amazing things about being human is that we have these things called beliefs, which are basically thoughts that we have been continually thinking, but as far as the thinker is concerned, the subject of the belief is absolutely real and true. Then consider that our brain releases neurotransmitters that are related to each specific type of situation and remember that our brain cannot tell the difference between a real life event in our external world and an event imagined in our internal world. You can see just how easily we can end up in a situation where we believe the world is a hostile place and our thoughts and feelings continually re-affirm this to us, so our belief becomes our living reality. In such circumstances we tend to want to withdraw from the world and not interact with it again until the world has changed, just like your ancestor and of course as a result of this we are not producing enough serotonin. In my experience, a huge percentage of people that come to me having been diagnosed with depression are actually suffering from the effects of their negative thoughts far more than the effects of real life situations. In fact many start the conversation by saying “I know I have a great life and I should be happy but I’m not. I just feel depressed.” When people are diagnosed with depression, doctors often prescribe anti-depressants known as SSRI’s, which stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. This is because serotonin is produced then reabsorbed back into the body and the aim is to slow down this reabsorption as it’s widely acknowledged that a key indicator of depression is a low level of serotonin. So once again, we can see that similar to anxiety and anger, a period of depression can be helpful if it keeps us away from dangerous or challenging situations, but if this is continued for long periods it can become very destructive and in some cases can be very challenging to pull out from. But also in the same way as anxiety and anger, by learning what is actually going on in your systems and then practicing specific techniques, you can begin to actually increase the serotonin levels in your body which will then have an effect on your ability to relax and sleep which can then enable you to start thinking, feeling and behaving differently. If this piece was of interest, please look out for the companion articles on Anxiety and Anger and also for the related article on The Stress Response, which explains that we suffer so much because we are the only species that can trigger the stress response through thought alone.