A Unified Model of Depression: Integrating Clinical, Cognitive, Biological, and Evolutionary Perspectives

Aaron T. Beck and Keith Bredemeier  –  Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania


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We propose that depression can be viewed as an adaptation to conserve energy after the perceived loss of an investment in a vital resource such as a relationship, group identity, or personal asset. Tendencies to process information negatively and experience strong biological reactions to stress (resulting from genes, trauma, or both) can lead to depressogenic beliefs about the self, world, and future. These tendencies are mediated by alterations in brain areas/networks involved in cognition and emotion regulation. Depressogenic beliefs predispose individuals to make cognitive appraisals that amplify perceptions of loss, typically in response to stressors that impact available resources. Clinical features of severe depression (e.g., anhedonia, anergia) result from these appraisals and biological reactions that they trigger (e.g., autonomic, immune, neurochemical). These symptoms were presumably adaptive in our evolutionary history, but are maladaptive in contemporary times. Thus, severe depression can be considered an anachronistic manifestation of an evolutionarily based “program.”