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Is Depression Contagious?

Reviewed Apr 16, 2013

Summary

Protect yourself from absorbing other people’s negative moods, with:

  • strong coping skills
  • knowledge and understanding
  • healthy lifestyle
  • patience

You may have an upbeat attitude and a near-perfect life but sooner or later, you’re going to encounter negative people. These are people who can turn smiles to tears and a holiday into tragedy. They blame, complain or start fights at the slightest provocation.

They may be your friends or your co-workers. You might be married to one. They may be smart or average, big or little, young or old. What they may have in common is some level of depression, and you.  

Depression is not “caught” by infection, like the flu. But if you’re around angry, sad or fearful people, you may start feeling the same way. 

“Anybody can absorb negativity,” says life coach and author of Addicted to Stress, Debbie Mandell.

But, there’s a big difference between feeling down and being clinically depressed, which is a serious medical condition affecting family and personal relationships, work or school life, sleeping and eating habits and general health.

At some point in our lives, we all drive through at least a few of life’s potholes, and most people do it without crashing. You may be temporarily upset by problems or disappointments, but you bounce back.

A clinically depressed person, on the other hand, can’t stop feeling worthless, guilty, helpless, hopeless or regretful. He or she may have no energy or enthusiasm for work or family, be unable to form friendships or intimate relationships, and show no interest in the future.

How do you “get” clinically depressed?

Sometimes it’s brought on by a medical condition, such as diabetes or hypothyroidism. Or, it might be the side effect of a prescription drug, alcohol or recreational drugs. Marijuana, for example, is a depressant. Depression seems to run in families, suggesting an inheritable biological component. Some people fall into depression after a tragic event. 

But, a landmark study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic indicates that the roots of most clinical depression can be traced to childhood, where we learn to think, interpret and respond to events.

A child learns early on how to handle—or not handle—stress later in life. He studies adults around him, and learns by their example. He can absorb their inappropriate behaviors and negative thinking, then practice them. If his parents are depressed, he might never learn appropriate ways to combat stress.

If a child is surrounded by combative, sad or fearful people, he learns to fight or hide his feelings. If ignored, neglected or overprotected, he may never learn to build successful relationships.

If she’s told over and over in words or actions that she isn’t smart, strong or attractive, she may grow up without the resilience she needs to fend off negative thoughts.  

Since no one has a perfect childhood and stressful situations pop up in everyone’s life, we all must build coping skills, says psychologist Richard Shadick, PhD, professor of psychology and director of counseling services at Pace University. If we didn’t learn them as children, we can do it as adults. The healthier we are emotionally, the less likely we will be to slip into negative patterns, especially if we find ourselves living or working with people suffering from depression.

To keep someone else’s mood from hijacking your own emotional well-being

Set boundaries.
“A lot of people will talk incessantly about their bad situation,” says Mandell. “Try to change the subject or assert yourself, nicely.”

Seek positive friends.
“We’re so focused on what we eat but not careful about who we hang out with,” Mandell adds.  

Prepare for bad times.
You will face problems in your life. Determine what coping tools work for you, then stock your emotional-health arsenal.

Be careful what you think about.
Don’t exaggerate small problems, says Shadick. “Try to think positively.”

Get physical.
Exercise. The simplest way to reset your mood is to take a walk.

Don’t take another person’s ups and downs personally.
It’s not about you. 

Don’t badger.
Be patient. If a depressed person asks for help, give it. Put a key in the lock, but let them open the door.

Knowledge is power.
“Depression can sap the energy and enthusiasm for a fulfilling life out of anyone living with or regularly interacting with a depressed person,” says therapist Joe Wegmann, PD, LCSW, pharmacist and licensed social worker. “Family and friends can empower themselves by understanding this disorder, and getting their own needs met.”

Live well.
Follow a healthy diet. Get enough sleep.

Do something.
Go to a movie, spend time with friends. Have fun and be glad you are able to enjoy life. 

Resources

National Institute of Mental Health
866-615-6464 (toll-free)
www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression/complete-index.shtml

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study
www.acestudy.org
www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/ACE

Yapko, Michael. “Secondhand Blues.” Psychology Today, Sept. 2009, http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200908/secondhand-blues

By Paula Hartman Cohen
Source: Susan E. Lawrence, MD, recognized expert on effects of child abuse and author of "Creating a Healing Society: The Impact of Human Emotional Pain and Trauma on Society and the World"; Debbie Mandell, MA, life coach and author of "Addicted to Stress"; Richard Shadick, PhD, professor of psychology, director of counseling services at Pace University, NY, author of numerous articles on positive thinking, and suicide prevention trainer for federal emergency response agencies; Joe Wegmann, PD, LCSW, pharmacist, licensed social worker, public speaker and author of "Psychopharmacology: Straight Talk on Mental Health Medications".
Reviewed by Reviewed by Patrice Marqui, Director, Office of Member and Family Affairs, ValueOptions Inc.

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