Do you know that depression may have the same healing effect on emotional stressors as sickness has on an infection or virus? It’s time to stop stigmatizing depressed individuals and treat depression as an opportunity to heal rather than an excuse to judge. Here’s why
We hate being “sick.” When we have a cold or the flu it feels horrible. We often have low energy, feel the need to sleep a great deal, and lose our appetite. It’s much more difficult to concentrate or to enjoy the things that usually bring us pleasure. Even doing basic tasks such as showering can feel burdensome. We certainly don’t want to see or talk with anyone. In fact, often it feels like everything hurts and we just want to curl up in a ball and wait for the sickness to pass.
Yet, however unpleasant it may be, sickness is actually the coordinated effort of our immune system to heal us from the effects of an infection or virus. In theory, the various behavioral and emotional symptoms of sickness help prevent us from exerting ourselves so that our body and mind can put energy into healing.
Many of us have tried to push ourselves when we are sick by continuing to work, exercise and socialize only to find that we feel worse. And often, when we try to push through it, it only prolongs the period of time that we are sick. So, hopefully, we’ve all learned the lesson that we need to take it easy and let our immune system do its job.
Accordingly, as a society, we seem to acknowledge that when someone is sick, they need certain accommodations. Businesses often provide “sick days” for people to have the opportunity to heal. Family and friends are accommodating when their loved ones can’t engage in social or household activities and need to stay in bed as they recover. People who are sick may even receive extra care and concern to let them know that they are loved in the hopes that they feel a bit better during this tough time.
And equally important, when someone is sick, we generally don’t criticize, mock or judge them. There is a basic recognition that everyone gets sick and that asking someone to resume typical activities during that time would be counterproductive and detrimental to their well-being.
Further, when people are sick, we do not challenge the fundamental notion of who they are or what their potential is as a person. There is an understanding that they need some time to heal, then afterward will return to pursuing their purpose in the life they have developed for themselves. In fact, letting people know that it is OK to be sick and that their support system rallies during tough times are one of the experiences that can build trust and loyalty.
Interestingly, when we look at the symptoms of being sick, many often overlap with symptoms of depression. Depression is often called the “common cold” of mental illness because of its prevalence. But perhaps there is a deeper connection to the “sickness’ response to fighting a virus or infection.
Depression may have the same healing effect on emotional stressors as sickness
Depressed individuals often have the same loss of pleasure (anhedonia), increased sleep, reduced eating, low energy, poor concentration, and reduced life functioning. And similar to being sick, being depressed is a painful and unpleasant experience, resulting in severe suffering and disability.
And perhaps relatedly, from an evolutionary perspective, depression may have the same healing effect on emotional stressors as sickness has on an infection or virus. The general hypothesis is that the symptoms of depression such as loss of enjoyment and low energy force us to pull back and not engage in activities such as work or socializing that would take us away from focusing on and solving the stressful issue.
As an example, the “depressive realism” hypothesis suggests that depressed individuals are actually better able to accurately process information, which would help in speeding up problem-solving. And the “Analytical Rumination Hypothesis” posits that the rumination – or repetitive thinking—that often occurs during depression creates an intense focus on problem-solving that increases the speed at which issues are resolved.