Today’s guest blog is from Dr. Susan Heitler, who reveals how one man’s depression ultimately severely affected his wife. It seems depression can absolutely be contagious — unless you are aware and take action.
Someone recently asked me the following question: “My husband has been depressed for months. Now I’m getting depressed, too! Did I catch it from him?” My answer? Probably. Depression is most certainly contagious.
With that in mind, here are five prominent attributes of depression that make downer moods so easy to catch:
1. The “negative cognitive triad.” Psychologist Aaron Beck coined the term “negative cognitive triad” to describe three arenas in which depressive thinking is negative. Depressed folks see themselves, others and their futures through dark-colored glasses. For example, Owen was depressed for several months after losing his job. Julie, his wife, felt dragged down by Owen’s constant, negative comments. Owen tried to be more upbeat, but his dialogue was always peppered with self-reproach.
Owen had also become uncharacteristically critical of his wife. As she headed to work feeling good about the way she looked, Owen ended his goodbyes with, “Do you really have to wear so much makeup?” As to his future, Owen would say, “I’m sure I’ll never get another job I love as much as the one I lost.” Eventually, Julie began to agree with him. His bad mood brought her down to his emotional level.
2. Negative energy. Just walking into a room where Owen was sitting was enough for Julie to feel her energy level sink. Sometimes she avoided talking to him. Even being in the same room with him seemed to let the air out of her proverbial balloon.
3. Social isolation. Eventually, Owen seldomly left the house. When the family was home, he’d stay in his room, alone with the TV.
Soon, Julie followed suit and became a virtual shut-in. Bringing Owen with her to social gatherings was too painful. She could see that their friends, who used to love Owen, now avoided him. His dark cloud must have appeared contagious to them as well For years, Julie and Owen exercised together. When it became too difficult for Julie to convince Owen to run with her anymore, Julie also stopped running. Running was once a way for Julie and Owen to stay in touch with their neighbors, who also were runners.Increasingly, Julie felt cut off, depressed at the loss of her old, fun, casual friendships.
3. Learned helplessness. Psychologist Martin Seligman identified the depressive phenomenon he labeled “learned helplessness.” When people are seriously depressed, trying to do anything feels overwhelming.
For example, for years, Julie and Owen shared household responsibilities. Eventually, however, Owen seemed to have lost his ability to see what needed to be done and take care of it. He seldomly swept the floor no matter how much food the baby had scattered on it. He’d get up from the dinner table and walk into the TV room as if there were no dishes to be cleared from the table.
With all the work of childcare and keeping up a household falling into her lap, Julie felt overwhelmed and helpless.
4. Dominant-submissive interactions. An episode of depression is usually triggered by a dominant-submissive interaction, like being criticized or told what to do, or by a decision in which someone submissively gives up on what they wanted. Owen had known for a while that the hostile relationship he had with his boss was likely to get him fired. One final flare-up did the tric, and Owen was the clear loser.
As Owen’s depression continued, his wife became wary of doing anything that might make it worse. This concern led her to say yes far too often when she really wanted to say no. “Yes, I can clean up the kitchen;” “Yes, I’ll cancel our plans to go out with friends.”
Each time Owen and Julie made a decision together where one had to concede something of importance to him/her, more depression was the by-product.
5. It’s treatable. The good news is that depression is highly treatable. Psychotherapy, medications or both can make a significant difference.
My experience as a therapist has clarified that couples therapy and/or a marriage education program is particularly high-impact for depressed people who are in ongoing relationships Recovery brings light back into your life. The main goal of all therapy for depression is for internal feelings of empowerment, optimism and positive energy to return, lifting depression’s dark cloud for everyone.
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