The Purpose of Pain

When it comes to physical pain, it’s purpose is hardly in question: It focuses us to where our immediate attention and action is required.

We accidentally rest our hand on a hot stove top burner and, without our sense of pain, our hand, if it weren’t for our sense of smell, would become cooked well enough to serve up at the next meal.

We could laugh at this, but sadly and horrifically there are some who do not experience the sense of physical pain due to a rare condition known as congenital analgesia.

[On a side note: During the thick of my battles with cancer and lung disease, I went for nearly a year without a sense of smell or taste and boy oh boy* do I have some stories to tell.**]

So physical pain… yeah, full of good, bodily purpose.

However, I don’t know about you, but I never considered mental pain, a pain which reveals itself in many forms, most notably perhaps as depression, as having any mental purpose, let alone one being positive in nature.

Consequently, I was happy to come across a recent article published in the New York Magazine entitled Psychologists Think They Found the Purpose of Depression.


While I’ve never been clinically diagnosed with depression or any other mental illness, I have no problem self-diagnosing myself with having had various forms and degrees of depression as well as psychosis that were brought on from my leukemia, my lung disease as a side-effect result of the bone marrow transplant, and, especially, from some of the potent meds I was and continue to be on to treat and manage them.

Chemotherapy Nurse
Nurse suited up and prepared to administer chemotherapy

And I don’t know if I’ve ever even mentioned it here, but for five years before my leukemia set in, I was having some pretty serious mental goings on from Lyme Disease. That junk is no joke. For me, it seemed that I was on a monthly cycle (yes, there is an analogy that fits nicely here but I will pass on its usage out of common sense and fear) where I would face severe anger issues. “Fortunately,” the bone marrow transplant seems to have cured me of the Lyme Disease and its psychotic side-effect.

While I am no doctor, I am schooled on the subject of mental health the hard knocks way, which is why I’m always on the look out for, and happy to report on when I find them, good news about advances in mental health research.

Which brings us back to the potentially good news found in the NY Magazine article.

According to said article, researchers have found that there may be a purpose why we experience the pain of depression.

It’s a lengthy article but here’s the crux of it:

At the center of Hutson’s piece is Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Canada. Andrews argues that depression may be “an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.” He sees it in the condition’s bouquet of symptoms, which include “anhedonia,” or an inability to feel much pleasure; people who are depressed ruminate frequently, often in spirals; and they get more REM sleep, a phase associated with memory consolidation. This reflects an evolutionary design, the argument goes, one that’s to, as Hutson summarizes, “pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the one underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.” Like, say, a “failed” relationship. The episode, then, is a sort of altered state, one different from the hum of daily life, one that’s supposed to get you to pay attention to whatever wounding led to the upset. For example, 80 percent of subjects in a 61-person study of depression found that they perceived some benefit from rumination, mostly assessing problems and preventing future mistakes.

I don’t know… What do you think?

Personally, I’m not really all that convinced. I mean, maybe clinical depression is specific enough to where one is able to use the depression as a kind of “time out” to ruminate on that which makes one depressed and, by doing so, figuring out how to overcome it, but it didn’t seem to apply to the things I went through.

For sure, I did spend a lot of time down in a deep dark place thinking about how I got there, which was from diseases that were inflicted upon me without my control or consent; and from where I was “ruminating” I saw no way other than love, prayer, hope, and treatment (some of which in the form of prednisone was helping to keep me down there) as my only way out.

Ruminating on it seemed only to entrench me even deeper down into that dark hole of depression.

It wasn’t until I began to develop strategies, both mental and physical ones, to keep me from getting trapped in that ruminating spiral downward to begin with that I began to regain control of my cognitive outlook on life.


Who knows… Maybe I don’t understand the research well enough. Again, I’m no doctor and I was never treated by a psychologist or recommended therapy for my conditions so maybe I don’t have enough of a clue to understand that perhaps the strategies I developed were the result of my depression. I’m doubtful but maybe.

And I must confess, it, this hypothesis of the purpose of depression as discussed in the article, does make sense to me in the grand, human evolution scheme of things. When faced with a mental problem, why wouldn’t we have evolved in such a way that we would naturally have a mental solution?

The Brain, As It's Never Been Seen Before

Anyway, I will be keen to see how this research evolves. I hope it does so in a way that provides us with new and more effective ways of treating depression that are less dependent on medication.

For, if there is one thing I have learned from all my experience with pain: pain drugs are not an effective long-term solution to treat physical pain. From this understanding I must suspect then that brain drugs, too, are not an effective long-term solution to treat mental pain.

If you are suffering from either, I pray for your comfort and healing.

And if you’d like to learn more about my strategies for surviving all the pain I’ve been through, check out my post HOW NOT TO DIE: In 13 Easy Steps or the little book of inspiration (hopefully) I adapted from it.


*Non-gender specific

**Let’s just say there were some good things about having no sense of smell or taste — like riding in the car with the family and not noticing when passing by a dead skunk; or, not being able to taste that clear crap they make you drink to clean the innards out — and there are some bad things about it — like lying down on the couch to take a nap and then sleeping on the pile of poop the cat left there because you couldn’t smell it; or, eating an entire meal of bad sardines because you couldn’t taste that they had spoiled in the can… yeah.

14 thoughts on “The Purpose of Pain”

  1. So interesting that you wrote on this topic today. I have a life-long diagnosed depression. And in recent years, I have come to understand the truth and power of using the depressed state to withdraw, ruminate, and most importantly, allow my ruminations to guide me to solutions to the source of my despair. I was in the middle of working out a current problem when I read your post.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your condition, Jackie. It sounds like you haven’t let it determine your fate and that you’ve become a forward thinker in regards to managing it. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us, my friend. I hope others like me will gain from it.

  2. Thanks Kurt – for me depression and anxiety are not terribly rewarding. Having said that I am caused by the condition to look at what it is that is pissing me off, with a good deal of scrutiny – the key though, is coming to terms with whatever you find, because sometimes its not a pretty picture. I’m thankful for the subject matter it sometimes gives me for a poem or two, but I’d happily live without it – Take it easy mate and Thanks again.

  3. Another symptom of depression is lethargy, the inability to move forward. Maybe this is the “it” for which you’re searching. That lethargy may mobilize you from taking drastic or inappropriate action. (Maybe, here the rumination occurs.)

  4. I’ve had some issues with not recognizing pain – while I feel it, I seem to have quite a high tolerance for it. That got me into some medical trouble a couple of times (gangrenous gallbladder and walking around for weeks on a broken foot.) I think the same can be true for recognizing my mental state….I have a high tolerance for it, so I don’t always know when I’m in trouble.

    Not sure that adds anything to the convo except I can relate.

    • I don’t have a necessarily high tolerance for pain; however, I do have a high resistance toward going to the docs to deal with pain, which didn’t serve me well when I resisted for 3 weeks before getting checked what turned out to be a blood clot in my leg that revealed my leukemia.


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