A number of years ago my brother sent me an article called Demystifying Depression – Part I by Name of Feather – Name of Feather is the username under which the article was originally posted in May 2005 . Over the years the article has disappeared and reappeared on a number of occasions as the websites it was hosted on have changed owners or simply just shut down.
The major thesis of the article is that depression is a physical disease and, more specifically, a disease that is the manifestation of an inability to recover for the day to day stress of being alive.
In general, human beings have a finite ability for cellular repair and depending upon the amount of stress, stimulation and tissue damage they experience they will require a specific length of time to fully recover. For example, a person may have the ability to repair 48 units of damage per day, or 2 units per hour. If they have an easy day that causes 12 units of damage, it will take them 6 hours to recover. A much tougher day that causes 48 units of damage, will, assuming no further damage occurs, require a full 24 hours to restore things to normal.
Something that is less than helpful is the nature of recovery. Unused potential simply evaporates and cannot be stored. If it was not used when it was available, it is just no longer available. Which is a problem when we consider the following example: Someone has an exceptionally stressful day and generates 96 units of damage, mandating the need for 2 full days of recovery. Not a problem, so long as the time is taken to recover and allow the body to return to baseline, the individual will be fine – think about someone taking it easy on the weekend or going to bed a few hours earlier for a couple of days. Now what happens when to the recovery queue when, on the day following that 96 units of damage, the person has an average day of 48 units?
96 – 48 + 48 = 96.
After a full day or recovery they remain in an un-recovered state; effectively in the same position there were in when their day ended yesterday. It is this cumulative characteristic that creates the possibility that the recovery queue will grow larger and larger over a period of days and weeks.
The body is generally able to keep going for a while when it is over stressed or overworked. This resilience is a survival trait allowing us to push hard when we need to and recover once the work is done. In fact, our ancestors lived in a time that alternated between scarcity and abundance, which favored individuals who were able to carry-on under suboptimal circumstances. Sooner or later things would improve and the opportunity for recovery would present itself. Baseline functioning would be restored after the required period of time.
Human beings run into problems when the opportunity for recovery is never given or not sufficient enough because our ability to continue to function normally is dependent upon the ability to spend adequate amounts of time in a fully recovered state. When this does not happen there are metabolic and physiological consequences. Initially the negative impact is small – a person might have a more difficult time regulating emotions, maintaining skin health, falling or remaining asleep, concentrating or recovering from physical exercise – but after a short period of time the effects will begin to grow – changes in body composition, personality changes, increased susceptibility to infection, or reduced cognitive functioning – and eventually the body will begin to shut down impairing digestion and immune functioning allowing disease to take hold, which will eventually lead to death.
The article outlines all of this, but most importantly it details how to avoid it from becoming a problem in the first place and how to adjust your behavior in the event it you have dug too big a hole to recover from with a few days of rest, some extra sleep or a couple of weeks vacation.
This to me is the most valuable part of it. So much is known about optimal or normal physiological functioning that it is very easy to miss some of the more critical parts of it. The experience of anxiety and its associated stress response are completely normal and very predictable BUT only as long as the processes that support them have the adequate opportunity to recover. The moment they start to get impacted will mark a change in how the organism will handle any stress. These impairments will have a cascading effect on seemingly unrelated systems, which will cause further negative effects. The example recovery potential of 48 units per day will, once a threshold has been crossed, begin to drop and will not be restored to normal levels until the body has the chance to fully recover. It becomes 47 units, then 46, and it continues to drop until the person consciously takes recovery, breakdown occurs which forces recovery, or the person dies.
The dose is the poison here. The higher the stress, the longer the recovery. The longer one spends in a non-recovered state, the greater the level of physiological impairment and the longer it will take for normal functioning to return. In fact, it is both possible and likely that extended periods of time spend running at a diminished capacity will result in permanent changes to many metabolic functions including the ability to recover from stress.
Consistently receiving nominal amounts are fine, as are occasional periods of time with very large amounts as long as there is the opportunity to completely recover. The potential problems begin when recovery capacity is not able to keep up with the damage and when this damaged state is sustained for periods of time. At this point, the individual will begin to show diminished capacity and this will include their long term resilience.
Which brings us to the actual problem with stress. We handle it very effectively and for a while, until we don’t, and at that point it is already too late. We have created a lot of damage that we need to recover from, and some of that damage is to the recovery processes and to the processes that create stress resistance. But we are blind about this simply because dealing with stress is so natural and doesn’t have a lot of symptoms.
If you haven’t read the article before give it a read and consider making a copy and saving it on your computer. It is very useful and given its tendency to disappear without warning, there is no guarantee that it will always be available to you when you need it the most.