Friday, August 14, 2009

Anxiety and Depression

I was golfing yesterday and stopped my cart over a small creek to search for a ball I hit into it. Immediately a turtle jumped into the creek and scurried into the deepest part of the water, hidden below the murky water. This turtle was scared of me, running for its life. And the funny part was, I didn't even see it before it fled. It already is covered from head to tail in dirt, is quite small, and was sitting motionless.

Yet despite all this it didn't hesitate to run for more cover and protection at the sight of me.

It got me thinking about how anxious this turtle must be, sitting there fearfully on the bank of the creek, getting some sun and warmth. At the first sign of possible danger it flees!

If this turtle were a human, it would have a huge anxiety disorder. It would be the over protective mother, or the germ-ophobe. The woman who has agoraphobia, arachnaphobia, or any other phobia known to every doctor in the world.

But this turtle is a survivor! Its more likely to survive because of its constant paranoia.

And if the descendents of this turtle (because it survived) evolved into animals with bigger brains and some measure of self awareness, they would likely all have anxiety disorders. Just like their highly successful forefather did.

And my question is this: is anxiety and ADD a new phenomenom? Or have we humans always had it but only now with our modern medicine, farming ability, and material standards for safety eliminated nearly all forms of danger? Have we done this to the point where a healthy level of anxiety which for millions of years protected our forebears from danger has now been rendered moot?

The world that I live in is so safe and secure that healthy anxiety and fear that would have kept me alive a hundred years ago would now require medication?

Another emotion that humans tend to suffer from quite often also has some huge survival benefits: Depression.

Economists have long known that the humans who act the most logically and thoughtfully are those who suffer from depression. Why? Depression typically means a lack of all emotions and feeling; all the normal happy feelings have been damped down to a negligible amount. And depressed people think logically because there are no emotions to guide their actions.

Emotions have been referred to as the "lubricant of the mind". The logical part of your brain acquires data points, organizes them, and keeps track of them. The emotional part of your brain acts as the scales, weighing everything your logical mind shows it and making decisions.

The human brain is meant to function that way; without emotions, decision making becomes paralyzed as the logical brain keeps weighing minutae and searching for more data, unable to properly compare apples and oranges.

People become depresseed when they are continually thwarted in their desires; when bad things happen again and again. Setback after setback, failure after failure, eventually creates depression.

But depression as a tool has its uses. Think about a forefather some seven thousand years ago. His crops were ravaged by bugs again. His family is starving and his youngest son just died from malnutrition. Life sucks. He becomes depressed and stops thinking emotionally. He sits in his sweaty mud hut for two days straight brooding and grousing. Suddenly he comes up with a solution to his problem of bug invasion and annual crop planting.

His depression shut him down for two days and he felt shitty. His logical brain ran around in circles in his head but it eventually came with an insight and a solution to his problem.

A happy ancestor would have kept enjoying the sun and life and eventually perished because he would not have figured out the proper crop planting rotation and methods.

This example is overly simplistic but it raises an important point: depression encourages logical thinking because its the only brain process that doesn't require emotions. Logical thinking solves problems. Logical thinking in a typical day is only required for 5% or less of actions. Everything else requires emotional thinking.

But millenia ago we had ancestors who dealt with failure by getting depressed and moping around. And it saved their lives. And we are here because of it.

And don't forget the turtles!

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