Is Depression Contagious?

An MD’s story of "catching" and being healed from depression

Posted Oct 28, 2009

I took a copy of the October 2009 issue of Psychology Today with me on a recent much-needed vacation, and found myself fascinated by psychologist and fellow PT Blogger Michael Yapko 's article, "Secondhand Blues", about the contagious nature of depression.

I dedicate a significant portion of my work to sharing my own story about depression, detailing how I went from being a suicidally depressed Emergency Medicine resident to deeply enjoying my new life as a wellness expert/speaker/coach and flamenco dancer.

I typically credit my recovery to a variety of elements: my faith in God (and answers to prayer), rediscovery of dance and creative expression; finally eating and sleeping well; having as much fun as possible; deep spiritual work (see the first point); and healing and changing old destructive patterns in relationships.

After reading Yapko's article, I realized that I'm also free of depression today because I've "de-infected" myself from depressive tendencies I'd "caught" while growing up. Below are some excerpts from Yapko's article, with my comments:

"what victimizes us the most is telling ourselves what we can't do, what we're inept at, what we're not good enough to do - all those things by which we limit and even devalue ourselves."

That victimizing voice in our head is frequently an echo of adult voices we heard growing up. Though I loved art as a child, I wasn't as talented as my younger sister, who already demonstrated genius-level artistic talent as a toddler. Since I excelled at school and sciences, I was "the smart one" and she was "the artistic one". I continually got the message that I wasn't artistic and that I shouldn't bother even trying to create things, since that was my sister's arena.

Though I was good at science, I didn't love it. I loved to dance and to write. However, since these aptitudes were essentially ignored, I began to ignore them too. My natural exuberant expression turned sober and quiet, and my depression deepened over the years - almost twenty bleak, art-free years, until I rediscovered my creative self in my late 20's. I decided to pursue dancing and writing, no matter what anyone else said (and they said a lot!). It was then that my depression began to lift.

"A child who is diagnosably anxious at age 8 or 9 is at high risk for becoming a depressed adult...the child has a negative interpretive style."

I lived amidst fear and worry in the recession of the early 1980's, and remember my parents going on about this terrible thing called "the mortgage". The "sky is falling" atmosphere made me feel anxious, and I began having anxiety attacks whenever my mother was late picking me up from my Pioneer Girls meetings.  I was frequently the only kid left, standing alone in the dark outside the church. That fear and insecurity about life and a world full of evil mortgages fueled a sense of helplessness that grew as I got older.

Today, my personal faith and spiritual practice (I'm Christian) give me a worldview grounded in the meaning, support and gifts to be found in all circumstances, challenges and disappointments. When I shed the need to constantly worry about life, depression fell away as well.

"A family environment of perfectionism reflecting unrealistically high standards is another factor that greatly increases vulnerability to depression."

Having a father who met the president of his country of origin - because he was the top student in the entire country - is a pretty tough measure to live up to. I consistently achieved straight A's; however, this was always treated as being normal by my parents. They were proud in a way that calmly recognized my having lived up to expectations, rather than celebrating my achievements.

I learned that the only worthwhile place was at the top - preventing me from trying out riskier activities, such as arts courses. Today, I let myself try anything I think might be fun! I still overachieve, as you can tell, but now it's in areas of life that I love.

"Another important element...is whether emotions can be expressed or not, what kinds of emotions can be expressed, and to what degree."

Growing up, I felt like it wasn't safe to express my (justified) anger, and was judged or punished if I did so. I've discovered now that if I express how I feel (or at the very least allow myself to acknowledge and truly feel the emotion), it typically passes like a cloud moving over the sun, and I find myself free and unencumbered after. People who repress their anger have actually been shown to die younger; I have finally freed myself of this particular death sentence.

Yapko has recently published a book on this: Depression is Contagious. I agree with him that the growing rates of depression in the modern world are largely due to societal and social influences, not just biochemical changes in the brain. If you suffer from depression it's important to tell your physician, and you may need pharmocological help to pull you out of the darkness.  However, in my experience you can ultimately heal depression and keep it at bay through prayer and spiritual disciplines, as well as changing the way you look at and live your life.

Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a wellness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, and flamenco dancer. She has been featured as an expert on the Today Show and other media outlets, and is available for keynote presentations, workshops, and private coaching. Visit susanbiali.com to receive a complimentary eBook, Ten Essential Easy Changes—Boost Mood, Increase Energy & Reduce Stress by Tomorrow.

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