You know that if someone close to you has the flu, you’re at risk of getting it, too. There’s no doubt about the contagious nature of bacterial or viral infections. But what about mental health and mood? Can depression be contagious?
Yes and no. Depression isn’t contagious in the same way the flu is, but moods and emotions can spread. Have you ever watched a friend laugh so hard that you started laughing? Or listened to a co-worker complain for so long that you started feeling negative, too? In this way, moods — and even depressive symptoms — can be contagious.
We’ll explain how it works, what the science says, and what to do if you feel like you’ve “caught” depression from a loved one.
Depression — and other moods — are contagious in an interesting way. Research has shown that depression isn’t the only thing that can “spread.” Smoking behavior — either quitting smoking or starting — has been shown to spread through both close and distant social ties. If your friend quits smoking, you’re actually more likely to quit, too.
Suicide has also been found to come in clusters. One study showed that in both males and females, having a friend who died by suicide increased their own likelihood of suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Depression’s contagious nature may work in the same way. Researchers call it a variety of things, including network phenomenon, social contagion theory, and group emotional contagion theory.
What it all comes down to is the transfer of moods, behaviors, and emotions among people in a group. And this group doesn’t have to be only best friends and loved ones — most research says that it can extend up to three degrees of separation.
This means that if your friend’s friend’s friend has depression, you may still be at higher risk of developing it as well.
Of course, this also works for happiness — as well as alcohol and drug use, food consumption, and loneliness.
So how exactly is depression spread?
It’s not as simple as sharing drinks with a person who has depression, or them crying on your shoulder. Researchers are still understanding how exactly emotions are spread. But some studies indicate it can happen in several ways:
- Social comparison. When we’re with other people — or scrolling through social media — we often determine our own worth and feelings based on those of others. We evaluate ourselves based on these comparisons. Yet, comparing yourself to others, especially those with negative thinking patterns, can sometimes be detrimental to your mental health.
- Emotional interpretation. This comes down to how you interpret the feelings of others. Your friend’s emotions and nonverbal cues serve as information to your brain. Especially with the ambiguity of the internet and texting, you may interpret information differently or more negatively than it was intended.
- Empathy. Being an empathetic person is a good thing. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. But if you’re overly focused or involved with trying to put yourself in the shoes of someone with depression, you may be more likely to begin to experience these symptoms, too.
This doesn’t mean that being around someone who has depression will automatically make you have it, too. It just puts you at a higher risk, especially if you’re more susceptible.
You have a higher risk of “catching” depression if you:
- have a history of depression or other mood disorders
- have a family history of or genetic predisposition to depression
- were raised by a parent with depression when you were a child
- are experiencing a major life transition, such as a big move
- seek high levels of reassurance in others
- currently have high levels of stress or cognitive vulnerability
In general, there are other risk factors of depression, including having a chronic health condition or an imbalance of neurotransmitters. Adolescents and women also seem to be more likely to spread and catch emotions and depression.
Who can I get it from?
You may be more likely to begin experiencing depression, or other mood changes, if any of the following people in your life live with depression:
- a parent
- a child
- your partner or spouse
- close friends
Online friends and acquaintances can also have an effect on your mental health. With the prevalence of social media in our lives, many researchers are now looking into how social media may influence our emotions.
In one study, researchers found that when less positive posts were displayed on a news feed, people responded by posting fewer positive posts and more negative ones. The opposite occurred when negative posts were reduced. The researchers believe that this shows how emotions expressed on social media can influence our own emotions, on and offline.
If you spend time with someone who has depression, you may also begin experiencing certain symptoms. These can include:
- pessimistic or negative thinking
- irritability or agitation
- general discontent or sadness
- mood swings
- thoughts of suicide
If you’re considering suicide or other methods of self-harm, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
If you’re experiencing any mental health issues, you can always reach out for help or professional advice from a doctor or online. If you feel like you’re in crisis, you can contact a hotline or chat line, or call 911 or your local emergency services.
Researchers have found that a partner or spouse’s depressive symptoms can significantly predict depression in their partner. But openly discussing your worries with a loved one, especially a partner, can be difficult. Many people with depression experience shame or guilt for their feelings. Being called “contagious” can be hurtful.
Instead, it may be a good idea to work together to manage these feelings and symptoms. Consider some of the following management tips:
Check out group meetings
Going to a group meeting or workshop for depression, behavioral therapy, or mindfulness-based stress relief can be helpful. Often, a group setting can help you work through things in a safe environment while reminding you that you’re not alone. You can find a support group through some of the below organizations, as well as through your local hospital or doctor’s office:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Mental Health America
See a therapist together
Seeing a therapist together, whether you go to a family or couples counselor, can be so helpful for finding coping mechanisms that will work for you both. You can also ask to sit in on one of your partner’s therapy appointments.
Support each other
If you work together with your loved one, you can keep each other accountable.
Make sure you’re both taking care of yourselves, going to work or school, getting the help you need, eating well, and exercising.
Starting or ending your day with some meditation can help calm your mind and change negative patterns of thinking. You can join a class, watch a YouTube video, or download an app that will give you 5 to 30 minute meditations.
Seeing a mental health professional can also help. They can give you advice, suggest treatment plans, and direct you to the support you need.
What if I’m feeling this due to my social media habits?
If you feel like social media is to blame for some of your mood changes or mental health issues, consider limiting your time spent on them. You don’t have to quit or deactivate your accounts, although you can if that’s what works for you.
But by limiting your time on social media, you can manage the amount of time you spend being influenced by others. It’s about creating balance in your life.
If you find it difficult to stop browsing news feeds, try setting reminders to put your phone down. You can also limit your time to only on a computer and delete the apps from your phone.
What if I’m the one “spreading” depression?
Many people with depression and other mental health conditions may feel like they’re burdening other people when they talk about what’s going on.
Knowing that emotions can spread doesn’t mean you should isolate yourself or avoid talking about the things that are bothering you. If you’re worried, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. A therapist can work with you to manage your depression and negative thinking. Many will allow you to bring in a partner or friend if you feel that’s necessary to resolve any issues.
Emotions related to depression aren’t the only type of emotions that can be contagious. Happiness has been shown to be just as contagious, too.
Researchers have found that people that surrounded themselves with happy people were more likely to become happy in the future. They believe this shows that people’s happiness depends on the happiness of others that they’re connected to.
So yes, in a way, depression is contagious. But so is happiness. With this in mind, it’s helpful to be mindful of the way the behaviors and emotions of others are influencing your own behaviors and emotions.
Taking moments out of the day to be mindful of how you’re feeling and trying to understand why can be incredibly helpful for taking control of your emotions and managing them. If you’re feeling hopeless or need support, help is available.
I’m afraid I’m going to catch my partner’s untreated depression. What should I do?
If you’re afraid that your partner’s mood may negatively impact your mood, you should be certain that you’re engaging in self-care. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating well? Are you exercising? If you’re engaging in self-care and you notice that your mood is beginning to be impacted by your loved one’s depression, you might want to consider reaching out to your family doctor or a mental health professional for assistance.Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP, ACRN, CPHAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.