Depression and Loneliness Are More Contagious Than You Think

Depression is known as the ‘common cold’ of mental illnesses and 40% of adults will experience loneliness in their lifetimes. Consequently, the likelihood of you being in close contact with a person who is either depressed, lonely, or both is rather high. Since both depression and loneliness have been found to be contagious in certain situations, how worried should you be when your roommate, close friend, family member, or spouse is suffering from depression or loneliness (read Are You Married But Lonely here), and what steps can you take to protect yourself from ‘catching’ these conditions when they afflict someone near and dear to you?

Why Depression Can Be Contagious

We all have different outlooks on life and different ways of reacting to stressful events. A tendency to interpret events negatively, to feel hopeless or helpless when you encounter challenges, and to brood over negative events and feelings can make you more vulnerable to depression (such thinking styles represent some of the very symptoms of depression).

A recent study assessed incoming college students’ outlook and thinking style before they moved in with their randomly assigned roommates and repeated the assessments three months into the semester, and another six months later. They found that students who did not have a negative thinking style but roomed with a person who did, often ‘caught’ their roommate’s negative outlook and had twice as many symptoms of depression at the six month mark. The results were so alarming and so significant (given the short period of time), the researchers hypothesized this effect might not be limited to situations of major life transitions.

In other words, when you spend a significant amount of time with someone whose outlook is negative and pessimistic (as is the case when a person is depressed), their maladaptive perceptions and thinking can influence your own such that over time, you too become more vulnerable to depression.

Why Loneliness Can Be Contagious

Beyond the emotional pain and distress lonely people feel, chronic loneliness has a devastating impact on our physical health. It impacts our cardiovascular systems as well as our immune systems to such a degree that it literally shaves years off our life expectancy. Therefore, how people become lonely, and whether a person’s loneliness can influence those closest to them is of significant importance.

Another recent study examined the spread of loneliness within social networks over time and found that loneliness spreads through a clear contagion process. People who had contact with lonely individuals at the start of the study were more likely to become lonely themselves by the end of it. The researchers even found a virulence factor. The closer someone was to a lonely the person the lonelier they reported themselves to be later on. Further, the effects of the loneliness contagion spread beyond first degree contacts to the entire social network.

How to Avoid ‘Catching’ Depression or Loneliness

These and other studies suggest that it is possible to become influenced by the people around you and adopt their negative perceptions and thinking styles. However, by no means am I suggesting you avoid friends and loved ones if they are depressed or lonely. Rather, simply to try keep the following in mind as you spend time and interact with them:

1. Remain aware of the dangers. Pay attention to the outlook and thinking styles of those around you. When someone close to you has an overly-negative ways of thinking, remind yourself that their negativity is not “truth”. A depressed person might view upcoming events as doomed to fail. Someone lonely might tend to describe people and their intentions in a jaded, mistrusting, or otherwise negative manner. Make a conscious effort to ‘disagree’ internally when you hear such things. Whether you voice the disagreement to the other person is up to you as it might not always be necessary or wise to do so.

2. Catch and correct your own negativity. Optimism and positivity can be practiced and learned. If you catch yourself thinking negatively and pessimistically, balance out your thoughts with reasonable but positive ways of thinking about the same events. Remind yourself of the valuable relationships and deep connections you’ve made with people in the past and that you still have today, as well as of the many opportunities to do so in the future.

3. Find people with positive outlooks and high sociability. If you find yourself living with or around people with negative outlooks consider balancing out your friend roster and seeking out someone whose outlook and perspective is upbeat, positive, and hopeful. Reach out to a ‘connector’—someone you know who tends to be at the hub of many social circles, get together with them, and soak in a ‘dose’ of well-honed social and relatedness skills. Reminding yourself that some people connect easily and meaningfully to others can be a good way of ‘correcting’ any negative thinking you might have ‘picked up’.

By Guy Winch, Ph.D.

Guy received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. Check out his new book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.

7 Things Lawyers Can Do to Break the Bonds of Depression

Helplessness and hopelessness.

Two pillars of depression.  And they’re tough to topple.

Helplessness

Lawyers, when in the vise-like grip of depression, feel helpless.  Despite their best efforts to pull out of it, they still feel depressed and all endure the consequences that flow from their chronic melancholy: a lack of productivity, chronic fatigue, falling behind on work projects because of procrastination and a pervasive sadness or feeling dead inside.

Hopelessness

This sense of helplessness, if not addressed, often leads to a profound sense of hopelessness about the future.  Sufferers’ conclude that they doomed to feel depressed for the rest of their lives. They just can’t envision good things happening to them in the future.  They have a type of tunnel vision: they only see a crummy future ahead of them and on-again, off-again skirmishes or battles with depression.

breaking-chains

Lawyers breaking the bonds of depression

But many lawyers not only survive depression; they pull themselves out of it. They break the bonds of the depression that have shackled them to a life sucked dry of joy, wonder and vitality.  If you’re a lawyer who struggles with depression and can’t see any light down the road ahead of you, remember that you too can not only survive it – you come out the other side, thrive and grow.

To do so, you’ll have to leave some negative things behind and grab onto some positive ones.  Here are some kernels of wisdom that I’ve learned over my decade-long journey of helping depressed attorneys recover:

  1. Learn to let go. Depressed lawyers tend to nurture wounds inflicted by clients, judges and other lawyers.  The wounds can be the result of an opponent’s downright nasty behavior, a cold and unsympathetic judge or a badgering client.  Lawyers take all of this too seriously and personally by magnifying these exchanges. They churn infractions and insults over and over in their head. This type of ruminative thinking not only wears them out, but feeds their depression. The truth is that a lot of the bad behavior we see in the law really isn’t really about you.  It’s usually the product of the ignorance and unconsciousness of others.  Remember this. AND LET IT GO.
  2. Let go of hanging around other negative lawyers.  It’s easy to gravitate to other attorneys who, while that might not be clinically depressed, are extremely negative about law and life.  Hanging around these folks will only feed your negative view of your law practice and life.  It fosters a corrosive and cynical view of the world.  You have a choice to make. LEAVE THESE PEOPLE BEHIND.
  3. Let go of surfing the net.  I know many lawyers that are on the web for big chunks of time during their workday.  It’s a maladaptive stress, anxiety or depression management behavior and, in the short or long term, destructive.  They surf for everything under the sun during work: music, porn, Facebook, YouTube, etcetera.  Deep down, they feel like they “deserve” these breaks because law takes so much out of them.  In their minds, these surfs are something pleasurable they crave because it distracts them from the pain of too much stress, unhappiness or depression.  But it comes at a cost. They waste precious time, procrastinate and then beat themselves up for it for being unproductive.  Beating one’s self up only leads to low self-esteem, which chips away at self-worth.  They don’t make positive changes.  They just don’t think we’re worth it.  But, you are worth it and you need to start acting as if you are.  LET GO OF THIS TIME WASTER.
  4. Embrace a sense of hanging around more positive lawyers.  Yes, they are out there! And there are more of them than you think.  I know because I’ve met and developed friendships with them. Finding others, who are doing more than just complaining about the law and are trying to do something constructive about it, will help you gain some sense of hope about the future and a more positive direction.  IT’S IMPORTANT TO LET NEGATIVE PEOPLE GO.
  5. Find silence wherever you can.  There’s something profoundly healing about silence, wherever you may find it.  The practice of mindfulness meditation to cope with the stresses and strains of modern life has become widely popular.  It has found a powerful foothold in the law.   Mindfulness has been studied and found to be a powerful antidote to everyday unhappiness, too much stress, anxiety and depression.  What makes it so powerful?  The practice of unhitching our wagons from the constant stream destructive thoughts and feelings that batters our brains that are accomplished by following one’s breath and not buying into troublesome thoughts or emotions.  Basically, we get “out of our heads” and drop back down into our bodies and short-circuit the negative rumination that fuels depression.  An excellent book on this topic is The Mindful Way Through Depression. If mindfulness mediation isn’t your cup of tea, I know many who find solace in their local church or synagogue.  There’s lots of research to support the theory that people who have a regular spiritual practice cope better with their anxiety and depression than those who don’t.  FIND SOMEPLACE TO DRINK IN SILENCE.
  6. Find a way to be more organized.  Researchers have found that chronic stress is a powerful trigger for depression.  Realistically, there are some things we’ll never be able to change about the demanding nature of the legal profession.  But, it’s equally true that there are many steps we can do that significantly lower our stress load.  One of the most powerful things you can do to help yourself is to be better organized.  If you have trouble with this issue, and most depressed lawyers that I know do, delegate it to someone else to help you with this.  It may be your secretary or even an outside consultant who are pros.  Also, check out my prior blog, My Desk, My Enemy: 6 Helpful Ways to Get Organized.
  7. If you can’t go to the gym, walk.  I’ve resolved so many times to go to the gym, but often don’t.  I have come to accept that sometimes I will and sometimes I won’t.  Even when I know it would really help my mood. Sometimes it’s because my day is full of too many commitments, I’m feeling lazy or I’m unable to find the one-hour block of time to do it.

You can break those bonds.  One link at a time.  And be free.

 

 

 

 

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