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.
★ RELATED: IF YOU’RE HERE YOU MUST BE SICK
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.
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.
★ RELATED: THE POWER OF ABOUT
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?
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.
**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.