Mark Wagner

User experience strategist and innovation professional,

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Are the human conditions of depression and anxiety merely sets of memes that are passed from generation to generation?

We have come to understand that we are born with a certain genetic set that maps our physical and physiological being (out of our control), and we are exposed to certain stimuli in life that also shape and affect our chemical make up. Medical and biological science have attributed these conditions as "diseases" and "disorders" that are hereditary, and can be aided with drugs and therapy, because they are theoretically based in "chemical imbalances." However, is it possible, beyond the instinctual level, that emotional states and conditions such as these are passed as "ideas" and instructions to us through our nurturing? That, rather, it's the experience and witnessing of our environments that shape our patterns and limitations of thought, and allow these types of conditions to manifest themselves instead?

  • Aug 18 2013: By counting every person who is chronically sad or nervous as having a mental illness or a brain illness we Dampen the hope of ordinary people to help themselves and others get better. Most of these conditions are what I call "thinking disorders" and are not caused by brain chemistry or brain connections. Thus, those suffering from anxiety and depression as well as their family and friends need hope that change and substantial healing is possible. When we label these conditions as a disease needing a medical response we place practical assistance impossible to billions of poor people.

    In many instances, a placebo is as effective in treating these issues as any drug with an active ingredient. Research shows that friends, caring family and neighbors are the best source of recovery, even when a professional is involved and drugs are available. Most important is asking the Client what he or she thinks will work best.

    Regardless of the causes, we need to find ways to respond to outside and inner stresses and create a place of peacefulness within. By always looking outside ourselves we lose hope and discount the simple ways to alter our lives so we can get better.

    I spoke with a friend recently who was sad and anxious. She asked for a recommendation for a good therapist. After listening to her fr an hour it was obvious that her lack of making simple decisions was bringing chaos and the answer is not drugs or therapy but make some simple decisions about life. As long as she ruminated on the possibilities of being mentally I'll she was paralyzed.
    • Aug 29 2013: I hear ya man... I can agree but in a society that would rather label and sort according to what's more enjoyable, I'm a crazy pain in the ass at times. I try too hard and I care too much becoming counter productive to my intentions. People are inevitably going to react, I'm sensitive to other's emotions and the effort I give to keep control & talk it out before harm is caused, majority people see it as I don't care and they express that to me. That's when I'm broken. I don't do anger; I do despair. I know why, I'm unable to explain it so another can understand why to how and what I do to be a better me.

      Following the emotional upheaval, misunderstanding, and destabilization I'm left insecure, fluctuation of powerful emotions without a constant to assist regaining a level. I have a good moral standard, high attainable principles, and respect for people I wish I saw in the people. I have lived sober, I have self medicated with drugs and alcohol and I took the therapists pills, in each a considerable amount of time to assess logically and describe creatively, to that boat of reason floating atop the sea of emotion is an ongoing effort and ardent concern to self progression.

      Society don't understand, they use the power in good days, and turn their heads on the bad days because no body has got the confidence to tell me, "hey, knock your shit off. You're off rockin' your own boat and we can see it. Thought I'd let you know, cause I care." I've had people express interest in understanding and I try to be upfront and honest, to communicate clearly, but I've yet to find where it works and keeps working. The periods of unbalance searching for understanding and direction have taken me across the country and back but never off of square 3 on the board of life. I'm capable of achieving high levels but keep falling back to square 1. Start over, you gave it your all and couldn't maintain. Society who you want to advise, advise me, don't care about society; I'm not able to.
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    Jul 31 2013: Although I would answer your question with a direct "no", there is a lot of nature/nurture interaction that we still don't understand.
    Yes, some memes are stress-inducing, and they can persist over generations.
    Yes, your body responds to these memes, and that is through 'chemical imbalances' and different genetic expression.

    you cannot understand (fully) our nature without our environment, and our environment cannot be understood (fully) without our genetic background. It is this play of interactions, your impact on and impressions from your environment that helps (or suppresses) your genetic expressions.
    Through ideas, physical space, food, sound,...
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      Jul 31 2013: Thank you, Christophe.I think it's the elimination of the stress-inducing memes that is so critical for contemporary-age health and wellness.
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    Jul 29 2013: i like George Santayana's take on this:
    "depression is rage spread thin".

    i think it highlights the hopelessness that many people feel in the modern grind and reflects the lack of legitimate outlets for it. I guess that is why exercise can help.

    in an age where aggression is perceived as entirely evil and unacceptable, there is little opportunity to vent bile outside of sport and exercise, but for many people, this is not satisfactory.

    i've been through both depression and anxiety. it's partly because i am an uptight guy (my nature) but mostly it was tied closely with the job i was doing. when i changed jobs, it helped the situation immensely.

    for me now, singing and performing is my way of venting my spleen and dispersing those pent-up feelings of edginess and unease that so easily turn into anxiety and depressive thinking
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      Jul 31 2013: Thanks much for the comment, Scott. Learning how to creatively express emotion is critical to my survival, too. Changing environments and patterns of learned thinking have helped as well.
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      Jul 31 2013: Thanks, Deepak. I agree, there are patterns we learn along the way that become "wired" into us, some of which become conscious and unconscious as habits. The acknowledgement of the forces well beyond us, whether we want to believe them or not, absolutely impact the every second of our existence and flow of energy and information through us. Awareness of, and the intent and desire to tap into this "flow" contributes to us creating our own reality, thereby consciously correcting unhealthy patterns.
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    Aug 16 2013: I agree that it is a combination of nature versus nurture up to a point. Younger children are more susceptible to the combination but then when you're older and you become more sociable you see different aspects of life through being sociable. Nature versus nurture and depression are not necessarily linked; at some point you're old enough to decide for yourself your behavior and as you grow and your brain is an adult state, around 24 years old you begin to think more rationally as an adult to use these different perspectives you have been exposed to. Depression is a symptom in multiple maladies. It in and of itself I do not perceive as genetic predisposition. The spectrum of psychological problems is inundated with depression/anxiety symptoms, therefore, it is very easy for a clinician to diagnose depression because it is associated with so many problems I feel it is a misdiagnosis.
  • Jul 31 2013: Mark,

    My take on the information processing is that we need to filter it. We are forced into decisions about the need to ignore the irrelevant, disregard the erroneous, and process the new and useful information. I would say that we are able to cope with it by walking away, but in doing so, we create anxiety about what we are missing (Blackberry junkies, day traders, etc.). Our senses are being taxed and our brain is not relaxing after a day's work, instead it is being subjected to a different form of data filtering and decision making. Coupled with a high sugar or high caffeine lifestyle, second guessing decisions made during the day, getting emotionally vested in a drama, or just being intrigued to the point you can't stop thinking about something all conspire to prevent the brain from relaxing, and sometimes the body through lost sleep. I think this type of lifestyle will emotionally drain someone and exacerbate the effects of some mental illnesses, potentially creating a problem that would otherwise be manageable in a different lifestyle.

    A neat experiment might be to take 10 day traders with mental health issues to some park in Alaska, Montana, or Idaho, and give them jobs that has limited human contact and no connectivity, even a primitive lifestyle, then see if the mental health issues became manageable.
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    Jul 31 2013: . My answer:

    (1) "Memes" are formed by many repetitions of experiences.
    (2) Many repetitions of practice can form, change, and remove genes.
    (3) Neuro-chemicals are merely information carriers.
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      Jul 31 2013: Thank you much for your reply. The repetition of ideas and mental constructs over and over seem to have a profound affect on how we think, feel and ultimately behave...potentially passing the same thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on to others..
  • Jul 31 2013: No. I have no medical training, but I can offer some observations to substantiate my opinion

    1)The duration and level of stress we experience throughout our life is a major contributor to depression and anxiety. Some we can control (job selection, living environment, level of responsibility accepted, personal health care and maintenance, addictions) some we can not control (hereditary conditions, natural and random disease and illnesses, natural events, existence of external threats and predators,susceptibility to addictions, etc).

    2) Our behavioral response to various conditions starts during the child nurturing phase of our lives and consequently, how the adults in our lives reacted to stressful situations, the amount of anxiety and depression they had, and their relative influence on our lives all help determine our behavioral responses.

    3)The availability of food, and the quality and quantity of the food we eat has an impact on anxiety and depression, particularly substances such as sugar and caffeine that have known behavior effects.

    4)The amount of second hand information that we are getting through media forms such as the internet, TV, radio, and widely distributed printed materials has given us more to be aware of and concerned about. Also, the practice of sensationalizing, over-stating, intentionally biasing, or intentionally using the information to manipulate the audiences, coupled with this mass inflow, has added increased levels of awareness and complexity to the lives of the consumers. Along these same lines is the age at which we are exposed to this information influx and our mental maturity when we receive it.

    5) The rate of change of society, political and economic chaos, and loss of core values has confused people and made role identification difficult. Career, religion, sexual orientation, survival skills, family roles and personal ethics are not the same as prior generations. The number of choices and baseline differences create stress.
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      Jul 31 2013: Thank you, Robert. I'm intrigued by your comment about our awareness becoming a complex exercise. Working on awareness seems to require more energy to "tune in" and process the complexity of information that we are bombarded with. It seems to hinder our ability to handle it. Is it fair to say that the practice of human awareness has become more difficult, or is society and human kind at large losing the skills to cope with it, thereby succumbing to these influences (e.g., rates of stress-related health conditions on the rise, globally)?
  • Jul 29 2013: To me, this seems like another oversimplification of a very complex issue.

    Looking back at a life of over sixty years, I think I have been borderline depressive most of my life, and I am convinced it was primarily genetic. My parents were not this way, and my six brothers and sisters have a variety of dispositions, and we were all brought up in the same way.

    Anxiety and depression are natural to some extent, and I think that people like me are born with a slight imbalance. I think it is directly related to the fact that it is extremely difficult for me to wake up and get started in the morning. I now rely on coffee, but I can clearly remember having the same problem as a teenager, before I drank coffee. I know people who wake up and are ready to go instantly, whereas it takes my brain a few minutes to figure out that I am suppose to be doing something, and another minute or two to figure out what that is, like getting up out of bed.

    I am using myself as an example to show that we are all individuals. Broad generalizations about anxiety, depression, or any other mental or physical problem, are not useful.
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      Jul 31 2013: Thanks for your comments, Barry. I struggle with it too, always asking "is my mood a consequence of an imbalance of body chemistry?" I know I have the ability to change my perspective in any given situation, which makes me feel better, affecting my mood. I also have become aware of patterns, habits, beliefs and mindsets that I've learned from my family and upbringing, and those perspectives definitely affect how I feel and look at situations in my life now. So I, personally, have to believe that i have some affect of the consequences of if it. Merely asking the question to see if there is possibly a larger piece that I'm not thinking about.
  • Jul 29 2013: Its a combination of nature and nurture, same as everything.

    We'll know the precise causes when we figure out the finer points of how the brain works. In other words, it'll take a while yet before we'll have a definitive answer.
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      Jul 31 2013: Thanks, Nadav, for your comment. Agreed, there is a lot we don't yet know or understand. It seems as if we are on the cusp of a new enlightenment in this area as more attention has been drawn to these topics.