“Learned helplessness” exists as a natural response in animals meant to aid in survival. It has been found as a construct even at the genetic level. Certain types of rats and mice are chosen for studies of “learned helplessness” because they have this specific type of genetic makeup. Having a genetic predisposition to experience “learned helplessness” quicker than others can be one way of thinking of the types of genetic factors contributing to a higher likelihood of developing depression.
Clinical depression looks very similar to the presentation of animals who have “given up” when facing competitions or challenges. There is a withdrawal from the immediate environment, a decrease in motivation, and looks of defeat. Intense feelings of sadness and loss, common in individuals suffering defeat, are also characteristic of depression.
Humans who suffer depression also often refer to themselves as feeling “defeated” or feeling “there’s just no point in even trying”. Those would be verbal descriptions of what is actually happening on an instinctual level for someone suffering “learned helplessness”. It would also reflect verbally what happens to an individual on the losing end of social competition. “Social competition” theory has been used to explain many different types of depression.
One recent article (Blease, 2015) applies this theory to a type of depression called “Facebook depression”. There is considerable evidence that many individuals who use Facebook frequently suffer from depression.
One possible reason put forth by this author is that many Facebook users brag in their posts. There is more of a tendency on Facebook to stress and often exaggerate accomplishments. This can heighten social competition infrequent Facebook users, especially those users who are subjected more often to “bragging posts”, and can increase the likelihood of depression when users do not feel they match up to what others are accomplishing.
All of this does not mean that depression is simply a matter of people feeling like they can’t win one fight or accomplish one specific goal. It is not a reflection of just not reaching a goal and feeling bad about it. It goes much deeper than that. In fact, looking at depression as related to evolutionary processes developed for survival can help explain why it is such an all-encompassing type of problem.
Animals trying to avoid potentially dangerous competitions cannot just “give up in one moment and then move on with their lives. It is a response that lasts and that has to last for the animals’ very survival. Otherwise, the animal risks finding themselves in danger of facing that competition again.
People with clinical depression do not typically describe themselves as just feeling like they “lost one battle” and “failed at one task” when describing how they feel. But they do often describe themselves as feeling they are a “loser” or a “failure”. They also often describe themselves as feeling “defeated by life” or being “unable to accomplish anything meaningful”.
Looking at that as a response to just one or two negative events does not help explain such all-encompassing descriptions. But looking at depression as related to an evolutionary process, developed for an animal’s very survival, reflects one way of understanding why it can feel so all-encompassing and so pervasive.
Not that having successes, and recognizing those successes, can’t help. One of the problems with depression is not that sufferers don’t have successes; they do, but more that they don’t recognize them or really process them. Depression, again because of its relation to response animals need for survival, frequently involves an intense focus on loss and surrender.
Changing that focus to one processing accomplishments and successes effectively can be very difficult but helpful. It is not a matter of seeing everything as a positive but more of a change where everything does not seem like a negative. That is essentially the main focus of cognitive-behavior therapy, one of the most effective types of treatment for clinical depression.
Looking at clinical depression as linked to biological processes and survival instincts evolving over centuries does not explain all aspects of this serious condition. But it can help explain at least some of why it can be so devastating and offer at least some hope and direction for support and treatment. Much like the “fight or flight” response, it offers a very basic way of understanding where depression comes from and why it has such a strong impact.
References Blease, C. R. (2015). Too many ‘friends,’too few ‘likes’? Evolutionary psychology and ‘Facebook depression’. Review of General Psychology, 19(1), 1-13.
Written by: Dr. Daniel Marston Originally appeared on: Psychology Today Republished with permission