Is depression contagious?

We’d like to contribute to Mental Health Awareness Week and this year's focus on physical movement with a little reflection on depression.


This week (13th-17th May) is Mental Health Awareness Week and the focus is on how moving our body can improve our mental health. 

It is well documented that sitting for long periods can lead to physical illness. When we are sitting, our body isn’t using up glucose, so blood sugar levels rise. This in turn triggers the release of insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. When our body becomes less sensitive to insulin (insulin resistance) we run the risk of developing a range of inflammatory illnesses.

It is also well documented that exercise can positively affect our brain chemicals and lift our mood. Yet many of our clients find exercising when they are depressed almost impossible. When we are depressed we lack motivation and feel apathetic and disinterested. 

What is depression?

The Greek doctor Hippocrates named depression over 2,400 years ago as ‘melancholia.’ As humans, we all have the potential to become depressed during our lifetime. In a group of four people, one is likely to be struggling with depression, 

The triggers and the symptoms vary. Most commonly, people feel anxious or frightened; angry and destructive; or trapped - just wanting to run away. Some people manage to keep going until their symptoms pass; but many others find themselves unable to cope with very much for weeks at a time. When we are depressed our brain works differently. Positive feelings are dialled down and we see things through a negative lens. 

Most depressions arise from a combination of three things: our genes, our history and our levels of stress. By stress, we mean uncontrollable stress. We cope differently with stress we can do something about, than we do with stress over which we feel we have no control, and cannot escape from. 

Most CBT treatments for depression focus on exercises to self-regulate, i.e. to reduce cortisol levels. In addition, psychotherapy explores how our childhood experiences might be affecting how we experience relationships and events now. Both approaches have the same goal: to help our client talk about their feelings in a safe space, and develop a strategy to build resilience to depression.

Individualistic talking therapies tend to go looking for a reason for depression inside the patient’s inner world. We explore the impact on you of growing up in your family, and how your experiences might have led you to protect yourself.

Group-based therapies also consider how the social or cultural environment might be affecting us. When lots of people together feel extremely stressed by something they cannot control, they will develop a shared protection system. We call this a ‘social defence against anxiety.’ A healthy social defence in this country is to discuss the weather to avoid sharing too much information with a stranger. 

We are all now beginning to process how it felt to be part of a publicly experienced trauma. Furthermore, now that the pandemic is over, we continue to find ourselves living in a community/society/world that feels much less safe because of financial and political instability. Perhaps depression is a healthy response to too much uncontrollable stress?

How are you feeling post-COVID?

A large number of our clients are seeking therapy for help with relationship difficulties. Their stated reason is usually infidelity, a loss of trust, a change of goals, a realisation that the partner is different, and a fear of marriage. For our couples, the reasons usually have to do with inadequate or non-existent sex.

We wonder whether the chronic and unmanageable stress of the COVID period has led many of our clients to become depressed. They may not know they are depressed, and would not describe themselves as such. However, we see their lack of motivation, their inability to cope with day-to-day difficulties; their sense of feeling trapped and wanting to escape or run away as symptoms of depression.

Many of us are ‘putting on a brave face’ and reducing our exposure to situations we might find stressful, such as working, travelling and socialising. We would all counsel a friend with depression to “talk to someone.” But perhaps we might find it harder to admit to ourselves that we are having a depressive episode. 

It is possible that the impact of the pandemic has yet to be processed for a lot of people. We are seeing people for therapy with difficulties that have come about because they are exhausted and in need of someone positive to think with. 

Protecting yourself from someone else’s depression

There is lots of great self-help material available now about how to help yourself if you are struggling with depression. As we’ve said, incorporating movement into your self-care routine is very helpful – both to stave off low mood and to cope a little more easily when the wave hits. As so much is available online, we won’t cover it here.

Instead we thought we’d focus on how to manage the impact of someone else’s depression on our own state of mind. We are often asked why someone else’s depression affects us, how we can help ourselves and why we feel so guilty when we do.

Is depression contagious?

The short answer is yes. A bit like the common cold, we can ‘catch’ depression if our own immunity is impaired; or we spend a lot of time in close contact with someone who is infected (and not enough time with other people to help build our general resistance).

Unlike the common cold, depression isn’t spread by water droplets. The theory about how we ‘catch’ depression is called social contagion theory. It states that humans in social groups are affected by each other’s communications. 

Consciously, this means we tend to be affected by the way someone with depression communicates: pessimistic talk, being self-critical and critical of others, unhealthy eating and sleeping patterns, being irritable and socially withdrawn. 

Neuroscientists have also found that people struggling with depression also struggle to mentalise, which means depressed people find it hard to imagine the other person’s point of view. So when we are with someone who is depressed we can end up feeling not-validated, not worthwhile and not cared about. This can in turn lead us to feel low. 

We are of course affected by people’s facial expressions and body language; and we are also affected by emotions being transferred “right-brain to right-brain” using a process called automatic mimicry. This brain-wiring enables humans to build connection when speech isn’t possible (think of a mother and baby), and it is possible because of the mirror neurons in our brains. 

So if depression is socially contagious, and we’ve been through a shared traumatic experience (the pandemic) then it is understandable that depression is much more prevalent now. It may also explain to a large extent how our social behaviours have changed since the pandemic as we seek to protect ourselves from being contaminated: quiet quitting, leaving urban centres, withdrawing from society etc.

Many readers will by now have joined the dots – post-Covid depression is the next ‘wave’ and there is no mass-vaccination campaign.

What can we do?

The most important thing that we can all do is to talk about it. Using a Harry Potter analogy, if we can all begin to say ‘Voldemort’ rather than ‘He who cannot be named’ then the shaming power of being depressed is lessened.

To do this, we need to recognise the symptoms of depression in our friends and family and acknowledge them with care and gentleness. This can be really hard when we are living with someone with depression whom we experience as AWOL, often unpleasant and exhaustingly needy. It can feel satisfying to take out our frustration on our depressed spouse or teenage son, but if we can avoid doing that, we’ll feel much less guilty.

Depressed people often appear self-centred because… well, they are. They are using their energies to cope with their emotional overwhelm. If we are to avoid being contaminated and keep our immune system strong enough to be with the depressed people we care about, then we must attend first of all to our own resilience.  

In a post-COVID (traumatised) society where social contagion is rife, it feels like an important personal responsibility to learn more about depression and develop a personal strategy for coping as positively as possible. That might feel a little selfish, but in the long run, people with depression need positive people around them if they are to recover.

We hope that you have found this thought piece interesting.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Greater London, W1T 5HG
Written by Sarah Hanchet, Psychodynamic Psychotherapist and Group Therapist
London, Greater London, W1T 5HG

Sarah Hanchet is a psychodynamic psychotherapist, group therapist & writer. She is the co-founder of RSFTherapy in Great Portland Street, London. Her thought-pieces are published on her practice blog (B'Psyched).

Contact: sarah@rsftherapy. com / www.rsftherapy / @rsf-therapy

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