The Power of Distress in an Unhealthy World


From Psychology Today/Joanna Cheek MD: “People come to see me for help with their depression, anxiety, eating disorder, addiction, or any other label that fails to adequately describe why we hurt. These diagnoses take on a life of their own, where we try to treat ‘the depression’ instead of addressing the problem it’s signalling. But what if depression, anxiety, and the mixture of mental health problems we face aren’t the actual problem? What if they are signals to help us see or solve the real problem?

. . . Perhaps it’s not that something’s gone wrong in our bodies or minds, but that something’s gone right: Maybe these symptoms are brilliant adaptions to survive a disordered world.

Evolutionary psychologists teach that we’ve evolved to survive, and not to be happy or calm. Low mood, anger, shame, anxiety, guilt, grief—these are all helpful responses to help us meet the challenges of our specific environments. Having sensitive protective functions that sound alarms or short-circuit when we’re threatened isn’t a design flaw. It’s a design success.

‘The key view in evolutionary theory is that if we find behaviors that we do not like or cause suffering to self or others, we should not automatically assume that something has gone wrong “in the machine,”‘ says Paul Gilbert, a professor at the University of Derby, who researches evolutionary psychology.[2] Rather, he suggests we ask, ‘In what social contexts are these behaviors prevalent? What functions are they serving?'”

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  1. This is an excellent article. It makes such good sense about the valid feelings of anxiety. Whereas psychiatry is quick to condemn and pathologize these valid feelings as a ‘disorder’ within a person instead of an adaptation to challenging or unsafe environments someone is trying to survive.

    “Anxiety isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s an adaptation to make us stronger to survive a dangerous world. Similarly, being free from anxiety is not a personal triumph; it’s a privilege. It means both you and your ancestors had the luck of living in secure environments, blessed with both physical and emotional safety.”

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