Anyone who’s ever suffered through depression or knows someone who has can testify as to how difficult it can make daily life. One theory holds that it’s a casualty of evolution—we’ve evolved faster than our genetics.
This theory, espoused by University of Kansas psychologist Dr. Steve Ilardi, among others, holds that our DNA isn’t suited to the modern life of desk jobs and big-screen TVs. We’re outside less often, we get less sleep and we exercise less.
Ilardi’s prescription, literally, is to dispense with the drug regime that is commonly used to treat depression and instead return us closer to our Paleolithic roots.
By acting more like cavemen—and channeling our parents voices telling us to go outside and play rather than staying indoors—we may be able to fight depression more effectively.
That coincides with other research indicating exercise may work as well as medication in combating depression. According to one study, those who worked in a group exercise setting did the best, but even those who exercised at home saw improvement.
The departure from the stereotypical sedate lifestyle seems to have an effect, and allows that inner caged lion to roar. We may not have to run from an angry wild boar, but running on a treadmill while watching the morning news may not be a bad substitute. Plus it’s a lot safer.
Obviously, we can only guess at whether cavemen suffered from depression. Since the study of it is relatively new, researchers are learning as they go. But it seems logical that whatever causes depression must have served some useful purpose, even if that changed over time.
In that spirit, the field of evolutionary psychology ties depression to the cavemen, though Ilardi’s approach isn’t the only one.
Some argue that depression evolved as a way to manipulate others into offering support that would otherwise be lacking, turning it into a rational response akin to a bargaining tactic.
Others have a less rosy view, depicting depression as the accumulation of flaws in the human system, which have grown deeper and more pronounced over time.
The issue of postpartum depression has also been studied in relation to evolution, with some scientists speculating that it may have served as a useful coping mechanism in our earliest days.
Researchers at Edinburgh University theorize that it may have caused new mothers to be ferociously protective of their newborns and more determined to keep them safe from predators. They say it is only in modern times that these hormones have become redundant and turned into the heartbreaking despair that some now suffer through.
While knowledge of the causes and treatment of depression is still evolving, looking back at the past may provide the necessary clues as to how to better overcome this condition in the future.
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