What You Call Pathological Might Be Adaptation

There’s a thing I’ve come back to a few times over the past several months that I could have sworn I’d written about, but if it isn’t here on the blog I don’t know where it would have been outside of the odd note here and there before a therapy session. It’s the idea that things that normatively are considered pathological or maladaptive in fact aren’t either of those things, or at least aren’t necessarily and inevitably those things.

It first came to mind when I was thinking about catastrophizing, which is something I do often enough that an outsider might find it concerning. What I realized is that for an autistic, catastrophizing sometimes merely is a form of scripting, a process through which we imagine in advance (in this case) potential negative outcomes of a situation. Our brains know enough about us to understand that the only thing worse than catastrophizing is the coming to pass of a potential negative outcome which we didn’t imagine, or for which we didn’t prepare.

Until and unless it becomes a matter, say, of intrusive thoughts, it isn’t inherently a pathological mental behavior. It still comes with a cost, but my brain considers it to be a kind of lesser of two evils.

I realized later that the same, in some sense and to some extent, actually can be said for depression, which typically is viewed through a stigmatized lens as entirely maladaptive. Instead, I think that it can act as a kind of failsafe when your system is reaching its limits, or has blown past them. Think of the way that depression can make you lose interest even in your favorite things and activities, leaving you to spend long hours in bed doing little or nothing. When your system is stretched that far, you might not consciously force yourself to rest; depression leaves you little choice.

Again, until and unless it becomes a matter of spiraling, it isn’t inherently a maladaptive mental behavior. It can’t be left entirely unattended but it’s sometimes us forcing ourselves to reduce the load.

It’s not, as should be clear above, that I think behaviors and states such as catastrophizing and depression are always positive adapations to stress. It’s only that we shouldn’t assume that they never generate any benefits, or that they should be avoided at all costs. Normative thinking about mental health isn’t automatically the correct thinking about mental health.

Think of all of this in somewhat the same light as that which I tried to shine on the pathological aspects of autism, where I argued that “[r]estricted interests and rigid thoughts and behavior aren’t the pathology” but instead the adaptations to manage “inhibited filters against stimulus and limited attentional resources”.

The things we think are the problem sometimes, in at least some circumstances, in fact are the solution to the actual problem.