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Is My Depression Contagious?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Everyone knows that, if you sneeze, you are supposed to cover your mouth and nose. The purpose is to try to prevent the spread of your germs to everyone else near you. Everyone has had the experience of yawning after seeing another person yawn. It’s nearly impossible to prevent that from happening. In the same way, it is common to smile in response to seeing someone else smile, especially when it is someone you know.  My three year old grandson saw me blowing my nose into a tissue. He asked me for a tissue so he could blow his own nose. All of this illustrates the fact that we mimic or imitate the behaviors of others around us. In fact, this mimicry usually happens outside of our conscious awareness.

In light of these facts of human behavior it is natural to ask the question, “Can I become depressed or happy if I am near someone who is depressed or happy? The answer is “yes.” Because of the fact that we mimic the behaviors of others, especially when they are people we know, we also begin to feel their emotions. It works something like this: We communicate through non-verbal cues. What that means is that we closely observe and respond to the “body language” of other people. Frowns, smiles, sitting upright, sitting slouched over, staring, arms crossed, arms open, etc., all communicate emotional messages. Consequently, we can find ourselves imitating their non-verbal behaviors. As in the example above, we may smile in response to the smile of another person. Finally, a feedback loop is created in our minds whereby we start to feel good as we smile, just as the other smiling person must feel. On the other hand, if someone we know looks depressed we may unknowingly imitate that look and, consequently, come to feel depressed.

Advertising is based on this principle. Have you noticed that when you shop or eat in a restaurant, music is transmitted throughout. The purpose is to create a mood shared by all the shoppers that will influence their wanting to spend money. In other words, there is an attempt to create a “group think” that will affect everyone in the same way. The type of group think depends on what the others are deliberately attempting to create. In politics, candidates running for election try to create a mood that will encourage everyone to vote for them rather than the other candidate. That is why so much money is spent on elections. The candidate most successful in creating the right mood will most likely win the election. In the present presidential election, if President Obama can create a mood of anger at Romney for losing Americans losing jobs it might help him win the election. If Romney can awaken disappointment at Obama for the poor economy, people might vote just vote for Romney. Yes, emotions are contagious.

Therefore, the depression and sadness of friends or loved ones can spread to and infect you. Does that mean you should avoid these people? The answer is “no.” By being aware of your friend’s depression, you can help him to feel less depressed. You can even point out how is frowning, hunching his shoulders and not smiling. We can help our friend or loved one become aware of how they are transmitting their emotions. The same feedback loop can work. A sad person can be helped to imitate our smile or good mood, setting up that loop inside them so that your good mood is transmitted to them. Very often people are unaware of their body language and how it’s affecting others and their own selves.

What are your experiences with contagious moods? Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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