Anxiety, depression and decisions

The washing up is a test of our attendant response. Photo by Scott Umstattd on Unsplash

Humans are a design contradiction.  On the one hand, we are built to get anxious.  On the other hand, we are built to avoid the pain of anxiety.


How are we built to get anxious?  Well, our ancestors found unresolved situations uncomfortable.  If something wasn’t possible, then our ancestors got anxious about it.  Their brains went into slight overdrive trying to think of solutions.  Alertness and observation increased.  They slept less.  This increased time and attention on the problem, and meant that eventually the problem was more likely to be solved.


How are we built to avoid the pain of anxiety?  Well, if anxiety was comfortable, then our ancestors would have simply relaxed, and done nothing different, when faced with obstructed desire.  No progress would have been made.  Instead, in order to make progress, the discomfort drove our ancestors one of two ways:

  1. Either we got comfortable, in the end, by solving the problem with some intense, focused work (the attendant response)
  2. Or we got comfortable by leaving the problem unsolved, and just getting used to the consequences (the loss response)

These two comfort-seeking responses are a major part of our human development.  When made anxious by unresolved problems, we are driven to either attend to the problem, or to get used to the loss of resolution.


How do we know which response to have in any given situation?  This is a more complicated question, and the answer is that everyone is different.  In any given context, we choose, ourselves, whether a problem is worth solving, or whether a situation just needs getting used to.

If the washing up is sitting there dirty, we feel a small amount of anxiety (seeing consequences in the form of social embarrassment, lack of hygiene, or blocking of process).  Most people, therefore, would use their attendant response, and choose to do the washing up.

If a familiar person has died, we also feel anxious and disturbed (seeing a huge problem in the form of a disorganisation of life as we know it).  But here, most people would eventually use their loss response, realising that they were powerless to reverse death.


Mental health can be compromised if we make different choices.

For instance, some people become depressed, and develop a loss response to almost all problems.  For them, even the washing up is better handled by non-attendance.

On the other hand, some people become chronically anxious, and develop an attendant response to almost all problems.  For them, even death needs something to be done about it, and cannot be left alone and unresolved.


Humans are designed by evolution to become uncomfortable when faced with a problem, and to then display behaviours to mitigate our discomfort.

Those responsive behaviours split into two main possibilities:  an attendant response (do something), and a loss response (let it lie).

For each problem, it is a personal decision whether to use our attendant response, or our loss response.  Many people make similar decisions – most people attend to the washing up, but develop a loss response to death.

A depressive response will tend to over-use the loss response, seeing action as futile, and leaving many things undone.

An anxious response will tend to over-use the attendant response, seeing action as desperately necessary, and remaining hyper-vigilant to far more problems than it is practicable to solve.

A mentally healthy response makes good choices.  We are attendant to a manageable selection of solvable problems, but we are also accepting that there are some things we can do nothing about.  In this way, we tread the middle line between anxiety (over-attendance), and depression (an over-developed loss response).