Dear Dr. Weiss-Wisdom,
I’m worried that my sixteen year old stepdaughter’s depression is affecting my fifteen year old daughter. My stepdaughter is in treatment (therapy and antidepressants). Her parents say that she is better than she was before treatment and they are all happy with her progress. I don’t feel like I can impact my stepdaughters’ situation very much; but it seems like my daughter has become more negative. Is depression contagious? Can a person develop depression by being around someone who is chronically depressed?
- Worried mom

Dear Worried Mom,
You know how when you are around an especially upbeat, enthusiastic person, it can be energizing? Well, it’s also true that being around a depressed person can drain your energy and dampen your spirit. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “depression is contagious.” Chronic depression is an illness that often has genetic and/or biochemical components. Naturally, we’ve all had our ups and downs. But chronically depressed people tend to focus on the half empty glass, and when you are around someone who dwells on the negative, it can be catchy. In all fairness, your daughter’s recent negative streak could have more to do with being a teenager than having a depressed stepsister. Most teenage girls go through a moody phase while they are adjusting to the physical and social changes that come with adolescence.

All is not lost. You have more influence than you may realize. Being a safe, supportive, and positive role model can go along way for both of them. There’s lots of new research about what makes people resilient and happy; it matches up with the advice that vibrant centenarians offer about how to live a good life. “Practice gratitude and kindness toward oneself and others; spend time regularly in nature; dwell on the positive; do not dwell on negatives that you can’t change. see adversity as an opportunity to grow. Do your best and forget the rest.” You can also try to influence the girls toward healthy diet, exercise, and sleep habits which of course have a huge effect on mood.

A simple way to practice gratitude is to go around the dinner table and have each person mention something that they are glad happened that day. You can also develop the habit of saying to yourself, “I enjoy eating cereal in the morning.” Instead of just having the experience, you can make note to yourself that you feel good about it. Believe it or not, the more we practice a certain way of thinking, it becomes a mental habit. And whatever we focus on expands. Another gratitude exercise involves writing down three things that you are grateful for each day. People who do this daily for six months, tend to feel happier.

The challenge of having a depressed person in the family can motivate the rest of you to take the actions that will help you thrive. Ideally, this will rub off on your stepdaughter more than her depression will bring the rest of you down. Cultivating mindfulness (awareness of our thought process and experience in the present moment) can help protect us from getting drawn into the negative attitudinal downward spiral that can breed depression. Research shows that we can decrease depression and increase happiness through our mental focus and mind/body awareness. The mind/body connection is very real. Our thoughts affect our physical health; physical experiences affect the biochemistry of our brain, which then affects our mind and body. And round and round we go.

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina’s research offers practical and helpful directions for how to help ourselves flourish. She found that for every negative feeling, thought, or experience, we need three positive feelings, thoughts, or experiences (love, joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, and inspiration), to feel good. Dr. Fredrickson found this 3:1 positivity is the tipping point for human flourishing. According to researchers, negative emotions tend to be stronger than positive ones. Therefore, we need to make a conscious effort to focus on good experiences, even recalling heartfelt moments and replaying them in our minds. If you aren’t already, I’d suggest that you try to create more positive experiences and memories in your family. And do your best, and try to forget the rest.

Recommended reading:
The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubominsky
Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive by Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D.
Diana Weiss-Wisdom, Ph.D. is a Licensed Psychologist PSY#12476 in private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Her office is located on the border of RSF and Carmel Valley. (858) 259-0146.

Author's Bio: 

Licensed Clinical Psychologist psy #12476
Private practice. Works with Adults, adolescents, older children, couples, families, and groups.
Specialties include: blended families, stepparenting, relationships, marriage counseling, divorce, stress management, cardiac psychology.