OyChicago blog

Is there a benefit to emotional and physical ailments?

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03/12/2010

Have you ever read an article that just sticks with you? I did a couple of weeks ago: Depression’s Upside by Jonah Lehrer in the New York Times.

The article evaluates the theory of psychiatrist Andy Thomson and psychologist Paul Andrews that a “depressive disorder came with a net mental benefit.”

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while: why would we suffer from anything unless there was a purpose or benefit to it?

What should we be learning from emotional or physical ailments and if we know, will we have more control over their outcome.

Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s necessarily something to learn from every disease, but from some sickness, there must be a greater message that our body is sending us besides expletives.

I used to get stiff necks a lot. It was absolutely miserable. I went to a doctor who told me that my neck was saying, “STOP MOVING ME.” I was forced just to sit it out. It turned out that there were things I could do and have done to significantly reduce the occurrences of neck and back pain (moderate weight lifting and ergonomic changes) but my neck was stiff for a reason to force me to stop moving it, so I wouldn’t do any further damage to it.

Another thing: I’ve never liked foods high in fat. For example, mayonnaise, avocado, macaroni and cheese, whole milk have always disgusted me and made me feel sick. No one could ever understand my strong dislike and physical reaction to the foods. It turns out my body couldn’t process them properly. I was being sent a message even just smelling the Kraft on the counter top or seeing mayo spread on bread: these foods WILL make me sick.

But then there’s the emotional part. How are depression, anxiety and rumination beneficial? According to Thomson and Andrews, it helps us understand situations better and analyze them piece by piece to forge a better outcome. I can buy that for some symptoms, but others, especially my distracting ruminations, only seem like mental clutter and are sometimes even somewhat personally destructive. Why am I burdened by them? Why is anyone burdened by anything?

One might argue that my obsessive thinking helps me pay attention to detail at work and come up with every scenario that could enhance or pitfall a project. Therefore it serves a purpose. If I were in the wild, I’d be constantly on the lookout for danger, and protect myself, family and community.

How our behavior can serve or preserve us can play a role in our interpersonal relationships as well.

I’ve always considered myself a compassionate person. When a person is behaving poorly, I try to think about what caused him/her to act that way. After reading this article, I will add to that, what purpose does it serve said person to act that way. I don’t know if it’s a worthwhile analytical process, but it does make for perhaps a more holistic view on those around me who are acting in a way that is hard for me to understand. It’s also a way to view the self and perhaps to welcome our demons to the table instead of being handicapped by them.

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