Depression as a Survival Response

Depression as a Survival Response

Is it possible that depression could be a survival response that developed earlier in life and then persists in adulthood? If depression - in certain cases - isn’t biological, why and how does it develop?

From a trauma-informed perspective it is important to consider that depression - like many other symptom clusters - could be the result of a survival function developed earlier in life. When I look at symptoms one of the first things I ask myself as I’m listening to the client’s experience of their symptoms is, “what purpose does this symptom serve?” and “how does this symptom help them safeguard from something else? Something, far worse to them emotionally?” Typically these avoidances developed earlier in life and are not in one’s field of awareness as an adult.

Depression symptoms have much in common with symptoms of PTSD; they include:

  • Difficulty with memory

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Avoidance

  • Persistent negative beliefs about self

  • Lack of interest in normal activities

  • Feeling detached from others

  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions and experiences

  • Irritable behavior

  • Problems with concentration

Depression can be a way to keep one safe in early childhood. If you had a parent who had high expectations and disappointing them felt devastating, then depression would be an adaptive way to survive that. “If I don’t have the energy to pursue things, then I can avoid failure and the pain that comes with seeing my parent disappointed in me.” Depression can also be a learned way to get attention. Perhaps the only time you received attention was when you were ill, tired, and listless. Depressive symptoms mimic sickness, like the flu, and could create the opportunity for you to get more attention and love in your family of origin. There are many scenarios in which a depressive response would be adaptive. These are just a couple of examples.

Keep in mind these symptoms and moods don’t develop consciously. It is not as if you were thoughtfully coming up with a master plan to get attention by feigning illness. Certainly not! As youngsters these learned responses are subtle and typically outside of our awareness. Children move and act in ways that will ensure their survival. It is actually a brilliant and amazing way to make the best of things that were not healthy.

The problem typically presents itself when we try to move on from our family environments and live in the real world, only to find out that a depressed, flu-like response to life doesn’t seem to work. The clincher is that even though we don’t meant to act or not act in certain ways, we do them unconsciously. With depression, the behavior typically exacerbates the negative beliefs that come with depression like, “I’m worthless, a hopeless mess, and incapable.” If you wake up at 8 am and immediately noticed you don’t “feel” like getting out of bed and you hear that statement “I’m so incapable, I can’t handle this” and then go back to sleep the morning away. Then when you wake up at 10:30 am the depressed mood is right there to tell you “I’m worthless and hopeless.” It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t play fair!

When depression doesn’t respond well to medication it might be a result of a learned behavior due to a dysfunctional child-parent and family environment. The depression is likely still trying to keep you safe from the things it was doing such a good job keeping you safe from as a child. The thing is you don’t need to be protected in that way anymore. You’re the adult and you have more options and choices at your disposal.

If you’d like to get help resolving this type of depression and you find medications just don’t seem to be doing the trick, reach out to me here. I integrate EMDR Therapy and other transformative trauma-informed approaches to help people get unstuck from many different symptoms including chronic depression.

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Hard-wired Emotional Circuits in the Brain?  Yep.

Hard-wired Emotional Circuits in the Brain? Yep.