Can Anxiety and Depression Be Contagious?

August 11, 2018

Can you “catch” anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses like the flu? According to a recent study published in the journal Memory and Cognition, many people believe this to be true. In the study, participants reported that after social interactions with people who suffered from anxiety, alcoholism, anorexia, and even schizophrenia, they believed that the condition might “rub off” on you.

Experts believe the answer is no – mental illness is not contagious. But things are a little more subtle. Indeed, we can pick up on the emotions and habits of the people we spend time with. So, if your best friend suffers from anxiety and operates in a constant state of stress and worry, you may begin to feel similar emotions. If a family member is suffering from depression, you may notice a change in your own mood after visiting them.

“Emotions are contagious because we are social creatures who respond to our environment,” says Judy Ho, Ph.D., a clinical and forensic psychologist based in Southern California.” Emotional contagion is feeling or expressing emotions similar to those of the people around you because their feelings prompt you to believe you should have those same emotional responses. We observe how others respond, and emotional contagion is an extreme form of this.”

However, feeling similar to the anxiety your friend exhibits doesn’t mean you have the same anxiety disorder as they do. That’s because mental illness can’t be transmitted from one person to another the way the flu can. Gail Saltz, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical College, explains, “Mental and psychological dysfunctions are not caused by infectious agents, and therefore cannot be ‘transmitted’ from the person with the illness.” .

Mental illness is much more than simply getting the flu because someone sneezed on you, or feeling stressed because your best friend’s anxiety disorder is having an attack.” Mental illnesses are thought to be caused by a range of genetic or biological and environmental factors,” explains Ho.” Part of this has been found to stem from genetic traits, as mental illness is more common in individuals whose blood relatives also suffer from mental illness. Environmental factors, such as trauma, abuse as a child, or even prenatal exposure to negative conditions or toxins, may also be associated with mental illness.”

So if you’re worried about developing a mental illness, you’re better off checking your family history rather than stressing about who you’re with.” The idea that social interactions increase the risk of being diagnosed with a mental illness may stem from the idea that emotions can easily spread from person to person,” Ho said.” But just because emotions are transient doesn’t mean a major mental illness requires treatment.”

Not sure if something serious is going on with you – or if someone else is affecting your mental health? Talking to a therapist can help you get to the root of any mental health issues you are dealing with or that you suspect you may be dealing with.

And if you’re sure that someone else’s mental illness is affecting your emotional state, don’t cut them out of your life in order to fix the problem.” It’s really unfortunate when people avoid being with someone who suffers from depression or anxiety because they’re afraid of contracting it, because it further isolates the person who’s actually struggling and needs support – support that doesn’t hurt the person who’s giving it,” says Dr. Saltz.

Instead, check in with your doctor about your mental health and then give the person a shoulder to lean on. People with mental illness suffer enough stigma as it is; showing empathy and being there for them won’t mess with your head.