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Anxiety and Depression as Evolutionary Response to Adversity

I watched the YouTube video discussion with Ed Hagen recently. It’s an hour-long discussion that includes a lot of science, and also a bit of theorizing based on the science in terms of how we developed to have anxiety and depression. I’m not sure I 100% agree with everything Ed suggests about evolution (i.e. I’m not sure that the lower rate of depression among people with more upper-body strength is not really a difference in self-reporting.) but he talks about some science that I don’t think is all that controversial.

For example, he describes depression as a response to adversity. Similar to physical pain, the psychic pain of depression is our way of telling us to stop what we are doing that is causing harm to ourselves. The many studies that indicate higher rates of depression and anxiety among people who suffered many traumatic experiences in childhood are not a coincidence. We are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression if we have been dealing with a ton of adversity. It is made worse by a lack of social support. Again, this is something we see in study after study about loneliness.

It’s not necessarily everyone’s experience, but statistically speaking, adversity plus a lack of social interaction = a higher risk.

This makes sense and yet we often see responses to increased rates of anxiety and depression that seem to ignore this reality. In the last few years, we’ve watched millions of people die during a pandemic, watched school shootings kill hundreds of children, experienced natural disasters as the climate continues to warm, seen a massive increase in legal attacks on LGBTQ people, and attempts to erase the history of minority groups in the US. We’ve had plenty of adversity. We’ve also had a marked increase in social conflict along with a marked decrease in social support across all of our society. And we’ve mostly blamed it all on using social media as if none of these other things were happening. I’m not going to argue that for some people social media contributes to their anxiety and depression, but I am saying that all of social media could go away tomorrow, and anxiety and depression would still be the normal evolutionary response to the state of the world right now.

Again, if we think of depression as psychic pain, it’s the constant reminder that what we are living in is something we should change, but most of us don’t have the ability to change it. So we need social support, which many of us aren’t getting either. That is something we can do something about, individually and collectively, and there is plenty of evidence that we aren’t doing this well at all. (Our politics and personal beliefs have very much turned into an “Us vs. Them” scenario that creates much more conflict than support.)

To pull it into a more personal example. I was laid off a while back, and not having a job is adversity. Feeling anxious about that fact is a normal response. It’s the evolutionary response communicating to me that I can’t just continue like this. At the same time, I need social support, hobbies, and other parts of life to continue so that the anxiety does not become debilitating. Without those things, and the skills I’ve learned over a lifetime of dealing with anxiety, it’s very likely that I would start spiraling. What I remind myself all the time is that the anxiety isn’t wrong. It’s not something broken in me, it’s thousands of years of evolution pushing me to keep looking for work for my own survival.

We evolved to feel depression and anxiety in response to difficult experiences because it serves a purpose. We’ve also evolved to depend on each other as a community. One without the other is going to go poorly for us, and I fear that is exactly where we are now. The large increases in rates of depression and anxiety, not to mention what seems like our complete inability to make a dent in the rates of suicide in the US, might just be because of this imbalance.

So be good to each other, and stay connected to each other. It’s what we need most in times of adversity.

You can watch the entire video here –

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