5 Reasons Your Ancestors Didn’t Have Depression and Anxiety and You Do

Why are we so much more likely to get depression & anxiety than our ancestors? Genetics? Environment? Because the diagnosis didn't exist?

By 2020, according to the World Health Organization, depression is set to be the second most disabling condition in the world after heart disease. This widespread illness affects people regardless of their background, nationality, sex or wealth. Statistics suggest 3.1% of the U.S. population were diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in 2015. However, the true number of anxiety sufferers is expected to be much higher.

This has not always been the case. Take yourself back in time 70 years. In 1942, ten times less people were diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

So why are we so much more likely to get depression and anxiety than our ancestors? Is it simply a case that our ancestors did suffer with these conditions, but were less likely to be diagnosed?

Maybe. Anxiety disorder wasn’t even an established diagnosis until 1980. Evolutionary psychology demonstrates that we all have an in-built ‘fight or flight’ response. We are designed to respond to certain scenarios with stress, fear or anxiety. In our hunter-gatherer days this may have kicked in over trying to escape a wild animal in the forest. Nowadays, it is more likely to be in response to a particularly pricey energy bill, or a job loss.

Yet we can’t brush depression and anxiety under the carpet, claiming that a greater awareness of mental health is responsible for the overwhelming increase in diagnosis in modern times. We also cannot look to genes – human genetics do not change that fast. Therefore, the answer must, in part, lie with our environment and with our lifestyle choices. Here are 5 of them.

1) Technology

Have you ever turned your cell phone off for the day and felt about three stone lighter? I always find it such a relief when I go on holiday, turn my data off and know no one will be able to contact me.

In today’s society, there is such a need to be constantly contactable. We almost feel guilty if we do not reply to somebody’s email, text message or return a call within the hour. Being permanently connected to the world’s Wi-Fi system, sleeping even with our phones beside our beds, makes it incredibly difficult to relax.

Do you bring your laptop home from work? Check your office emails outside of the 9-5? Stop. Give yourself a break from the continuous buzz of technology.

2) Social Media

With 1.9 billion active users, statistically it is likely you have a Facebook account. Are you one of the 400 million Instagram users? Or maybe Twitter is more your cup of tea. Social media has become so normal in our everyday lives that it is tricky to imagine a world without it.

I am not saying social media is entirely bad. I use it myself daily and find it an excellent way to stay in touch with friends across the sea. However, social media does allow a platform for you to, consciously or not, compare yourself to others.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found a high correlation between depression and social media usage in young adults. In a study of 1,787 adults between the ages of 19 and 32 in the US, it was found frequent users of social media were 2.7 times more likely to develop depression. This seems to be both a cause and an effect. The study suggests that people suffering from depression are more likely to navigate towards social media sites, but social media can also be a cause of depression, leading to a vicious cycle.

Author Lui yi Lin explained social media usage exposes an individual to “highly idealized representations of peers on social media [which elicit] feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives.”

Social media is also linked to cyber bullying, feelings of ‘time wasting’ and ‘internet addiction’. All of which are known causes of depression.

3) Work pressure

When I asked my partner why he thought people in today’s society were more likely to suffer from depression than our ancestors he immediately said ‘work pressure’. Adding that it can be such a challenge to get the work/life balance right.

Of course if you are under pressure at work your stress levels can increase. We all know that feeling. Mix that in with a little guilt over missing important events at home because of work, and it is apt to cause your anxiety to start bubbling away.

But are we really working longer hours than our ancestors?

The Overworked American’ by Juliet Schor seems to think so. The 1997 book claims that in 1990 Americans were working roughly an extra month per year compared to workers in 1970.  Although I couldn’t find any recent stats, I can personally relate these findings to many people I know who work in a range of industries. 9-5 does not seem to be the norm anymore. Instead, overtime and working weekends in addition to the typical full-time forty hours a week seems to be almost expected to thrive at in our jobs and careers.

It’s a simple equation. If you are spending more time at work, it is likely you are spending less time with friends, family, exercising and taking care of your health. If you are late home in the evenings, you are less likely to be cooking nutritious meals for yourself, and consequently more likely to be grabbing high fat, high sugar convenience food on the go. Lifestyle choices that are proven to reduce depression are being put on the back bench with work coming out on top.

4) Nutrition

Nutrition is big business at the moment. I am constantly seeing articles with titles such as ‘How to lose a stone in two weeks’ or ‘Get beach ready for summer’. But how about how to eat yourself happy? Or more importantly, are there certain foods you are eating that are making you unhappy?

According the 2008 paper ‘Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illness’, diet can have a huge impact on our wellbeing. The paper discusses the correlation between different food groups and our mood in depth. The key points are:

  • Carbohydrates

Turns out that celebrity low carb diet might not be all too good for your mental health. Carbs are high in the ‘happy’ neurotransmitters serotonin and tryptophan which promote the feeling of wellbeing. Just be sure to get yours from whole grains and fruits which will provide long-lasting relief. Not food high in processed sugar. This will only give a quick fix.

  • Amino Acids

Amino acids help build those happy neurotransmitters and improve brain function. Find them in meats, fish, diary, eggs and plant proteins such as beans.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Yes your grandma was right when she tried to force those fish capsules down you. Some of the top foods for omega-3 are salmon, sardines and walnuts.

  • Vitamin D

A couple of years ago I found myself tired all the time for no reason. I turns out I had a vitamin D deficiency. My doctor explained not having enough vitamin D in your body was actually exceptionally common, and a lot of people probably have the deficiency without realizing it.

Whilst vitamin D is obtained from sunlight, you can also get it from your diet. Again fish is a top performer. It is also added to fortified milk and cereals.

I don’t believe diet alone can explain why we today are more likely to have depression that our ancestors. However, we don’t need a scientific study to show us nowadays how much more processed and convenience food there is around. These tend to be lower in the above nutrients, and higher in toxins, bad fats and added sugar.

5) Exercise

There is no doubt we live a much more sedentary lifestyle than our ancestors. A typical daily routine may consist of rolling out of bed, a subway to work, sitting in the office for 8 hours, a subway again, maybe half an hour in the gym (if you’re lucky) and then back home again.

My point isn’t that modern life is completely dull. More that, when compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we could be mistaken for a little lazy.

Even compared to a hundred years ago, we spend much more time sitting still – what with the invention of the television, computer and Xbox and many more office-based jobs.

You’ve probably heard of endorphins before. There is so much evidence that exercise releases brain-chemicals that can ease depression.

In a 1999 study published in the archives of Internal Medicine, participants with depression were divided into different treatment groups – one of which were treated with anti-depressants, and the other followed an exercise plan. Although both groups’ depression was initially reduced, six months after the study it was found those in the exercise group were less likely to relapse.

So why didn’t your ancestors have anxiety and depression, and why are you more likely to? There could be a number of influencing factors, but chances are our modern day lifestyles are playing a crucial role.

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