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Is Depression Contagious?

This week on the podcast, by request from an anonymous listener who wonders if her depressed partner might be bringing her down, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen weighs in on whether or not depression is contagious. The answer might surprise you.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #99

After the rats became depressed, the researchers introduced some new roommates. Two depressed rats and a new, fresh-faced non-depressed rat (“Hiya guys!”) were housed together. Turns out living with someone depressed is, well, depressing, even if you’re a rat. Within just a few weeks, the new rats exhibited the same symptoms as the depressed rats.

Now, we can’t replicate such a controlled experiment with humans (I don’t think I’d let researchers come to my house and spill water on my bedding), but it makes sense. Given enough airtime, a negative outlook—about the world, yourself, and the future—can be convincing. If your depressed roommate or partner is critical, withdrawn, apathetic, and convinces you things will never get better, the dark cloud can spread over you, too.

Now, does this mean you should drop your depressed friend or partner? Unfortunately, only you can answer that one.

Now, does this mean you should drop your depressed friend or partner? Unfortunately, only you can answer that one. It’s a tough challenge without an easy solution.

On the one hand, do your best to communicate that your loved one is just that: loved. Not to mention that they are important to you, worthy of your love, and deserving of feeling better. Encourage them to seek help, but it may take an incredible amount of bravery on their part (and patience on yours) to take the first step.  

On the other hand, staying out of guilt when you’ve given your all isn’t an option either. You can’t rescue your loved one. You’re up against a host of factors, none of which you can control and there may come a point where you need to save yourself. Depression annihilates any shred of motivation; in severe depression, it can be difficult to get motivated to eat, shower, or unfortunately, seek help or make changes in one’s life.  

One hopeful note: it’s not only depressive thinking that’s contagious. Positive emotions and  thinking styles can be contagious, too. Think of the rush of excitement at a sports event or concert, the palpable calm after a yoga class, the simple courtesy of service with a smile, and of course, the warm fuzzies from hugging someone you love.  Indeed, in the roommate study, freshmen who were paired with a roommate whose thinking style was more positive “caught” a healthier thinking style.

To sum up, emotions are contagious—and while your partner isn’t the only factor, depressive thinking definitely plays a role in whether your partnership spirals into a distress system or holds strong as a support system.

If today’s episode was helpful to you, let me know by liking on Facebook, subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or subscribing to the biweekly newsletter.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.