Defensive strategy or disease? A new theory proves how depression can save us

Translation introduction:

What if depression is not a disorder in the understandable sense? What if it was just our bodies’ brave response to reduce the risks we face by putting us into a state of hibernation or dormancy like the ones that animals enter in the winter or when exposed to imminent danger? In this report, psychiatrist Alison Scalante explains a new and very interesting theory that explains depression.

Translation text:

For generations, depression has been considered a disease, or a disorder of normal functioning, and this idea makes some sense because depression causes suffering, sometimes to the point of death. But the important question comes: What if all these beliefs are wrong? What if depression was not a malfunction at all but an important part of our biological defense system?

Definitions of depression are increasingly questioned by researchers in various disciplines. Anthropologists view depression as an adaptive response to adversity rather than a mental disorder. In October 2020, the British Psychological Association published a new report on depression stating that “depression is best viewed as an experience or set of experiences rather than a disease”.

On the other hand, neuroscientists focus on the role of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in depression, according to the “Polyvagal theory” developed by Stephen Burgess, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina. Part of a biological defense strategy that aims to help us survive.

The saying goes that the starting point for depression starts with the mind in which distorted thinking resides, which leads to “psycho-physical” symptoms like headaches, stomachaches or exhaustion, but that’s all changing now. On the contrary, it is the body that senses danger first, and then quickly begins to create a defensive strategy aimed at helping us survive. This biological strategy is called the process of “freezing (restriction) or paralysis”, and it appears in the mind and body within a group of symptoms we call depression.

Depressed people are brave survivors, not dysfunctional ones


When we think of depression as irrational or unnecessary suffering, we stigmatize people and deprive them of hope, but when we begin to understand that depression – at least in its infancy – occurs for a good and convincing reason, we remove this stigma and remove the shame of those who suffer from it, Depressed people are brave survivors, not dysfunctional ones.

One example of how depression can save our lives is the story of Laura, a girl who believes depression saved her life. This girl’s problem was with her father, who used to hurt her with words most of the time, but when she confronted him and confronted him, her father became a danger and threat to her, and the more sparks of anger flew from his eyes during those quarrels, the more Laura was exposed to danger. The problem is that her father was so insightful that he could tell when his daughter had developed feelings of inner rebellion even when she was hiding them, and of course the latter was not spared his punishment for those feelings.

It was depression that helped Laura survive and go on, quenching the spirit of resistance within her, helping her to accept what was not acceptable, and numbing the outburst of her rebellious feelings. At that time, the girl had no one to tell about her suffering, nowhere else to contain or take her out of it, her only survival strategy was to stay in that house, and it was.

When this girl remembers her past, she does not regret the depression she experienced in her childhood, on the contrary, we see her grateful and appreciating him for helping her recover. Laura’s story is very cruel and nasty, and yet it helps us realize that depression, although it may happen for a good reason, does not make it a good experience for one. Bad started as a last resort for a brave and combative biological system.

Escape from pain by freezing


According to the aforementioned Poli Vigal theory, our daily experiences depend on a hierarchy of our moods in the autonomic nervous system. .

Our autonomic nervous system constantly checks our internal and external environment for any sign of danger, and as soon as it detects a threat or even a slight lack of sense of safety, it quickly becomes armed with its next strategy of “fight or flight”, which often manifests as overwhelming anxiety. . But sometimes we get so bad about this threat that we can’t stand it, or it may last for a long time, and our nervous system decides that there is no way to fight or even escape, it has only one option and that is “freeze or temporary paralysis”.

The freeze response is the defensive ploy of biological systems in higher animals, the same slug response we see in reptiles also known as the freeze or syncope response, and it occurs via the vagus nerve*, which switches metabolism To a state of rest or calm, people often feel faint or heavy and lethargic.

This freezing strategy plays an important role in relieving pain and gives us a sense of complete detachment from the traumatic events we are facing. To make matters clearer, think of a rabbit now hanging between the jaws of a fox. What does the rabbit have to do? All he can do is freeze, so that when the fox eats it, it relieves the pain.

This trick also affects the metabolism process, slowing it down and turning the body into a ketogenic state (it is a metabolic state that is achieved in the body when ketone levels in the blood reach a certain level due to a lack of carbohydrates when following a keto diet, for example, or by consuming few calories during fasting). Some doctors speculate that this metabolic state can help cure serious illnesses.

People often say they “left their body” during traumatic events in their lives, perhaps what we don’t know is that this feeling has a defensive effect in mitigating emotional trauma. These defensive tricks are very important, because some shocks can be too horrific for our nervous system to handle, in which case people’s minds are best not fully present.

So the freeze response is an essential part of our biological defense process, but at the same time it is ideally designed to last a short time, meaning that the organism – say the rabbit in the previous example – will face two fates. Either save him in the end (as if he escapes from the fox), or he dies (because the fox ate him).

But what if this threat or danger persists for very long periods of time? What would happen if there was no chance to fight or flee? This freezing trick will simply persist, and since it also changes brain activity, it affects people’s feelings and ability to solve problems. In this case, people feel numb and constrained, as they cannot move physically or mentally, and as a result they plunge into bouts of despair and helplessness, and this is what we call depression.

The body has a different opinion in seeing things


It’s now easy to tell that it was the conditions that Laura, the girl we talked about earlier, experienced during her childhood that helped her reach the “freeze” response, and we can even see how it helped her survive. But the question is: Why do people with less adversity resort to this same trick?

Our culture tends to judge a depressed person for his exhausting work as a sign of weakness, not to mention the self-development articles that state the need for the depressed to have the mental strength to help him solve all his problems, and it was not even safe from some psychotherapists who tell their patients that their depression is only a perception. Distorted by the conditions they lived in, which weren’t really all that bad!

But the body doesn’t see things that way. The defense strategies of our nervous system, whether “defend or flee” or “freeze”, are not really about the nature of the threat we face, but rather what the body decides about whether there is any threat or not And this process occurs in the pre-conscious stage, as our biological system’s response to the threat begins before we even think about it, and then our higher-level brain functions come to create a story to explain it, at this time we cannot choose these responses, because all this happens before So that we know it.

Anxiety studies have revealed that many modern conditions can trigger the “fight or flight” response. For example, our nervous system interprets the faint noise of construction equipment as the snarling of a large predator, as is the case with children who are being assessed at school, as it robs them of their sense of safety and stimulates their response to fight (the child is rude to their teacher) or to escape ( such as avoiding homework). These defense tricks come out in the form of our anxiety.

In the end, when these modern stimuli persist for long periods, the body decides that we cannot continue to escape, and resorts to launching a strategy of freezing to defend us. According to neuroscientist Stephen Burgess, what we call depression is a set of emotional and cognitive symptoms related to the physiological aspect that triggers a response Freezing is to help us survive, it’s all because our body is trying to save us, so depression happens mainly for good reason.

By this point, everything changes. When people with depression realize that they are not dysfunctional, but have a brave biological system trying to help them survive, they begin to see themselves in a completely different light. In the end, no one disagrees that depression is associated with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, but once people realize that it is an effective and active defense strategy, they will understand that they are not quite as helpless as they thought.

How is the way to survive?


When we understand depression as the emotional expression of the freezing response, we realize that the solution is to get out of that defensive state, and here Burgess believes that simply removing the threat is not enough, but instead the nervous system has to discover powerful safety signals to restore our social state again, and the best way To do this is social networking.

One of the symptoms of depression is the shame that you feel that you have let others down or that you don’t deserve to be with them. When society describes depression as a deviation or defect, we thus strip the right of the sufferers to consider themselves part of this society, we send them signals that they are not right, and do not belong to this place, and thus deepen their sense of shame and shame and avoid communication with others, and we have We blocked their way out of depression.

I think it’s time for us to start honoring the strength and courage of depressed people, it’s time to appreciate the amazing ways our biological systems find ways to survive our tough times. Finally, we should stop pretending that people with depression are different from everyone else.



  • Vagus nerve: It is the only nerve that originates in the brain and ends far away in the digestive system, so named because it travels throughout the body and sends sensory fibers from your brain to your various organs.

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