The stigma surrounding mental illness can make people feel worthless or isolated, and cause some people to suppress their feelings. The negative nature surrounding depression is linked to how it's seen as a defect or a deficiency, suggesting it's a malfunction of the human mind. However, researchers at the University of Jena in Germany explain this may be an adaptive behavior of survival, especially when it comes to letting go of unattainable goals.

"The one who gives up, wins," said lead author Katharina Koppe, in a statement, "even if that sounds paradoxical at first."  

Read More: 5 Things You Believe About Mental Health That Are Not True

Koppe refers to the ability to disengage — an adaptive function of depression. For example, if the gap between our personal goal and our current possibilities is too wide, we would be better off looking for more realistic goals and letting go of the old one. From a psychological standpoint, this is a survival tactic.

Previous research has found depression is an adaptive behavioral response in animals. Researchers repeatedly dropped mice into water, as their first response was to swim vigorously. However, after multiple immersions, they conserved energy by floating and doing minor motions to stay above water. If the mice continued to swim vigorously, their risk of drowning would escalate. This mechanism allowed the mice to survive.

The new study, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, sought to examine whether symptoms of depression are an adaptive behavior that can lead to disengagement from unattainable goals. Koppe and her colleague Klaus Rothermund compared a group of depressive inpatients to a non-depressive control group in how much time they spent on unsolvable anagrams, while examining group difference in time spent on solvable anagrams. These are words in which the letters are in the wrong order, like the anagram SIEGOT should be rearranged to make EGOIST.

"These unsolvable tasks represented unattainable goals, which it was necessary to give up as soon as possible in order to use the time effectively," said Koppe.

Patients with depression spent less time total on unsolvable anagrams compared to the control group. The time spent working on solvable tasks did not different between the two groups. The researchers note the test can not be equated to other challenges of daily life, but they do see the importance of how it can change our view of depression.

Sad girl The ability to disengage from unattainable goals may be an evolutionary advantage of depression. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, Public Domain

The lack of motivation exhibited by many depressed patients when they abandon unattainable goals could potentially be used in therapy. Rothermund suggests doctors could help patients identify the unattainable goals that led to patients being depressed, and then support the patient by allowing them to disengage themselves from it.

Read More: Families Are Often Embarrassed By Mentally Ill Relatives

"If we stop seeing depression simply as a psychological burden, which just needs to be removed through therapy, we might also be able to use the patient's crisis as an opportunity for personal development," said Koppe.

Depression may serve as a useful response to certain conditions, like disengaging from impossible goals. Some people develop depression due to their useless efforts of achieving over-ambitious life plans that are not feasible. However, the very same mechanism that helps us disengage could potentially inhibit the pursuit of any goal, even those easily attainable.

The main takeaway: letting go of the impractical can be liberating. This will open the door for new opportunities, and help prevent us from hitting a dead end. Our mental health will thank us later for giving it some rest.

Source: Koppe K and Rothermund K. Let it go: Depression facilitates disengagement from unattainable goals. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. 2017.

See Also:

Depression Is A Systemic Disease That Affects The Entire Body

Sitting Up Straight May Treat Depression Symptoms