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.

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