The Depths: Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic – Dirty Good Co.

The Depths: Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic

In The Depths: Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, Jonathan Rottenberg presents an underrepresented view of the depression epidemic that is silently growing into a significant (affecting 14.8 million American adults) and deadly problem (42,773 suicide deaths yearly in America). He posits that not every case of depression is rooted in an underlying chemical imbalance that can be rectified with antidepressants, but that a mood system gone awry is a potential root cause.

Chronic depressions more profoundly interrupt and disturb life plans than do shorter ones. Think of that person with the hole in his resume. That student who went from As and Bs to dropping out of college. And chronic depression has greater power to alter a person’s self-concept than briefer episodes do. Depression for months and years can potentially harden thoughts of the self as fundamentally worthless, powerless, and ineffectual. As depression drags on, autobiographies are rewritten. Depressed people become unable to remember happy times, or times when they even had a normal mood. The very concept of a normal mood itself becomes alien.

Some data reports upwards of twenty-seven million Americans to be taking antidepressants. However, two-thirds continue to deal with depressive symptoms. As well, a fair number are seeking treatment through cognitive-behavioral therapy, made popular by positive psychologist Martin Seligman.

Rottenberg believes that depressed people don’t have trouble getting out of bed because they are lazy or unmotivated, but rather they have trouble getting out of bed because they have too many goals that are failing. It typically isn’t one thing or event that sends the majority of sufferers into deep depression. Rather, multiple incidents create a repeated low mood that builds upon the next until the mood system gets stuck in low and drags an individual into a more serious depression. Low mood is a natural process. We should experience a fluctuation of moods between the spectrum of high and low. A high mood may be beneficial to attract a mate or make social connections with your tribe, and low mood as important in order to disengage when that tribe, or someone in it, poses a threat.

As Jonathan explains:

Ever since Charles Darwin saw signs of dejection in orangutans and chimps, the behavioral sciences have launched a raft of theories about the adaptive value of low mood. One theory starts from the premise that because confrontations are a common and dangerous consequence of competition, low mood helps de-escalate conflicts. By helping the loser to yield, low mood allows him or her to live to fight another day. Another theory highlights the value of low mood as a “stop mechanism,” a means of discouraging effort in situations in which persisting in a goal is likely to be wasteful or dangerous… Still another theory proposes that low mood states help sensitize people to “social risk” and help them reconnect when they are on the verge of being excluded from a group. And yet another theory suggests that low mood is adaptive because it enables people to make better analyses of their environments, which could be especially useful when they are facing difficult problems.

The depressed are fully aware of their inability to take action, and how it may appear from the outside. They may not, however, always be aware depression is at the root of that actionless state. Often they adopt the “lazy” stereotype, and spin into negative self talk which only exacerbates the problem. Presenting an alternative view, such as Jonathan’s, may allow those suffering to better understand the science and evolutionary importance of depression. An alternative view may move us toward action and away from the debilitation of shame and guilt that typically accompany depression. Reframing as a mood issue may, as well, improve the public dialog.

“Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.” — Lee Stringer

Our failing goals, on the whole, have become more lofty. The expectations of many have become less realistic, which sets us up for failure. We want Instagram fame, to make millions before we’re thirty, and we expect life to move forward somewhat smoothly and easily. When the reality that life is difficult, and success isn’t guaranteed, our focus wanes and we begin to question our priorities and the path we’ve taken. Is it the path we’ve chosen?

To ponder: Should those that suffer from depression set smaller, more easily attainable, goals for improved mental health and increased motivation; even if short term to allow a reset of our mental capacities?

As the triggers for anxiety change, reactions that saved us in the past may drag us down in the present day.

Perhaps for many of us, loftiness—while easily imagined—doesn’t sync with our wiring. The stimulus we expose ourselves to in order to attain, or attempt to attain, the goals placed on us—as much as those chosen—can be overwhelming. Anxiety and depression are on the rise partly, if not primarily, because we have an abundant amount of stimulus, interruptions, and perceived threats filling our days. If we were created to hunt, gather, and procreate; fight when the threat was manageable, flight when not, then what should our natural response be to fighting traffic, competing for work, sitting all day behind a desk, rushing through meals, being bombarded with media messages, texts, sugar spikes, and caffeine fixes? While today survival is easier in the sense of food availability, and we no longer need to scan for Saber-tooth Tigers, I think the consensus is fairly unanimous that we’re over-taxing our systems with the consistent influx of stress; coupled with poor diet. Excess levels of cortisol (released in response to stress) wreak havoc on our health, and prolonged elevated levels has been linked to depression.

We know that people who lack social support, face high levels of environmental stress, have poor sleep habits, or have a fearful temperament all are more likely to experience deep depression.

According to The Depths, extensive studies consistently showed those who suffered a deep depression started out in a shallow depression, stemming from low mood. Therefore, low-grade depression is a precursor for deep depression, and coming out of deep depression often involves shifting in and out of a recurring shallow depression. Research also showed a correlation between the time it took for someone to sink into a deep depression and how long it takes them to come out. Simply, if an individual experiences several low mood to shallow depressive episodes over a 6 month period resulting in a deep depression, it’s accurate to state it will take 6 months to come out of that depression, assuming the person is taking steps to do so. As I am better understanding, depression doesn’t just go away because you’ve called out the elephant in the room. It takes a persistent effort, and being prepared for a long haul if you’ve slowly descended into it.

The idea that low mood could have more than one function squares with the obvious fact that it is triggered reliably by very different situations. A partial list of triggers includes separation from the group, removal to an unfamiliar environment, the inability to escape from a stressful situation, death of a significant other, scarce food resources, prolonged bodily pain, and social defeat.

Bullying is a prime example of repeated low mood experiences that over time can send a person into deep depression. It’s possible the long term effects of persistent bullying are impacting the mood systems of the targeted. As seen in animal experiments, social isolation and consistent negative experiences in the social construct can change the mood system causing it to get stuck in low gear.

Perhaps the most devastating observations of depression in other species involve the effects of social separation. Harry Harlow’s controversial studies from the 1960s on baby rhesus monkeys raised for six months in total social isolation are difficult to read. They describe animals that appear profoundly depressed during the isolation period and are unable to function normally in group life when returned to the company of other monkeys. Repeated social defeat, or physical isolation, is another potent driver of low mood. Experiments show that if an intruder rodent is aggressively and repeatedly attacked by a home-caged animal defending its territory, the attacked intruder will show significant signs of depression.

The most consistent predictor, however, for the onset of depression is loss (death, divorce, loss of job). While there may be a high correlation for loss as a significant trigger, again the research shows shifting from short term grief to a deep depression appears to be connected to multiple losses. It may not be the singular loss of spouse through death or divorce that sends someone into a deep depression, but mounting losses within a period of time such as kids moving out of the house, loss of job, loss of house, or physical injury (loss of health). Multiple incidents are what tends to overrun the mood system and causes a shut down due partly to escalating and unmanaged stress.

Often the key to resolving the loneliness and longing of grief is venturing forth to seek out new people or renewing old relationships that eventually fill these gaps.

Making an effort to engage socially can be more difficult for introverts, as well as those that settle into the deep persistent depression. Just as an object in motion tends to remain in motion, objects that are stagnant tend to remain stagnant.

Are the natural ruminators doomed? Rumination is certainly a common thread across most of the books I’ve read. The mind is a powerful tool for positivity when solving problems and engaged in something worthwhile, but it can become a debilitating menace if not kept in check.

People who report a greater tendency to ruminate on a short questionnaire have longer periods of depressed mood in everyday life, are more pessimistic about the future, and have a harder time recovering from the effects of stressors such as a natural disaster or a recent bereavement.

For most, successful healing includes a combination of several methods. Aside from medication and/or cognitive therapy, one needs to develop habits that consistently elevate mood. Such routines can include running, meditating, or engaging in hobbies like knitting or woodwork. Basically, we want to routinely engage and cultivate our physical and mental capacities. We need patience during this process as we try different things to determine what works best. Medication, meditation, or therapy doesn’t work for everyone. Find what works and repeat.

We should also be aware of cultural changes that don’t jive with our evolutionary makeup. Low mood may develop due to lack of natural sunlight, coupled with the increase of artificial light that effects our circadian rhythm. As a whole we get less sun and less quality sleep, both have an adverse affect on our physical and mental wellness.

Purpose also plays a significant role in healing. Engaging in a self defined worthy cause creates positive emotions and raises mood. As well, taking action toward purpose shifts focus away from rumination and toward something positive, gradually lifting one from the depths.

I’ll conclude with Jonathan’s personal experience on finding a purpose and his way out of deep depression.

The concept of purpose may sound terribly abstract and out of place. Yet one clue that purpose may be crucial for building a strong recovery is that depressed people typically face a crisis of purpose.


It was not a simple matter to re-create purpose or even to divine the meaning of my depression—both took years. Yet it’s clear that my doing well after depression has been connected to a restoration of purpose, or more accurately, purposes. To the extent that my depression offered a warning, I think it was about the hazard of putting all one’s eggs in a single basket. I stay well in part because I have diversified my portfolio, evolutionarily speaking.


This diverse process is worth pursuing: I expect what is common among people is that however purpose is created, it can hold depression at bay. I still have my depression-prone temperament and a set of genes that pull for low mood, and life is as stressful as it ever was. But purpose is like a talisman, a charm that can ward off serious depression.

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Paul Lieto
Mixed Terrain Enthusiast /. Dirty Good Co — founder and Editor of RaceCenter Magazine.