Understanding Mood Disorders: Is Energy Contagious?

Picture this: You slept in, woke up feeling energized, and are ready for the day. You’re ready to make the most of this sunny Friday morning until you walk out into your living room. Your roommate is sitting on the couch whining about how awful her morning has been so far. She’s playing sad music on her laptop, and you go over to comfort her.

The energy in the room winds down, doesn’t it? That pep in your step is hampered by your empathy for your roommate. Whether it’s a psychological disorder at hand or just the aftermath of a bad experience, we tend to take on the energy of those around us.

This leads us to the topic of mood disorders. What exactly is a mood disorder? Why would someone else’s mental health affect mine, and how can we help one another?

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Mood Disorders

Mood disorders have been a wide topic of conversation in my class, Abnormal Psychology. Understanding and recognizing a mood disorder opens the doors to understanding what abnormal psychology and “abnormal behavior” entail.

This also gives insight into the contagion of energy. This was an idea I wanted to explore more on the basis of mood disorders. In the past, I’ve studied the effects that music has on mood, whereas listening to happy and upbeat music can drastically improve mood while listening to sad music can intensify depressive feelings. I then wondered what the connection could be between mood disorders and human environment. If music can change your mood that drastically, then how does living with someone with a mood disorder or witnessing something as traumatic as a suicide attempt, impact your own mental health?

What is a Mood Disorder?

Mood disorders can be categorized by a gross deviation in mood, which often involves extreme highs or lows (Barlow, 2021).

Two of the most common mood disorders are depression and mania. As described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM, depression is described as, “an extremely depressed mood state that lasts at least 2 weeks and includes cognitive symptoms… and disturbed physical functions” (Barlow, 2021). This can cause everyday functions and even the slightest movements to require overwhelming effort. Many symptoms can include altered sleeping patterns, a decrease in energy and alterations in weight, along with feelings of worthlessness and heavy sadness (Barlow, 2021).

Mania, on the other hand, includes extreme highs. People with mania are overjoyed with everything they do. The fallback, however, is that many of them have trouble sleeping or rarely sleep, are active to the point of exhaustion, and set nearly unreachable goals (Barlow, 2021).

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Potential Causes of Mood Disorders

Many people develop mood disorders due to a major event in their life, such as losing a job or getting divorced. These societal factors influence the development of such disorders, but there are other causes as well. Stress is one of the major causal factors for developing depression. It is the way in which stress is dealt with that is often linked to such disorders, not just the stress alone (Queensland Brain Institute, 2020). It is more the thought, “I can’t handle this stress.”

Some disorders have been found to have a biological cause. Genetic composition can promote a general predisposition to mood disorders, rather than causing one in specific to develop (Barlow, 2021). In the study of identical twins, genetics have proved to influence the development of disorders such as anxiety and depression. In a 2013 study, identical twins were found to be 2 to 3 times more likely to present a mood disorder if the other twin had one, rather than between two fraternal twins (Barlow, 2021).

While genetics have proven to hold an influence on the development of mood disorders, social and environmental factors are a more common cause.

Measuring Brain Activity in Diagnosed Patients

One of the most significant factors of mood disorders such as depression is a disturbance in sleep patterns. Studies of EEG data, or the electrical activity in your brain, show a shorter time period between falling asleep and beginning REM sleep in people with depression (Barlow, 2021). People without symptoms of a mood disorder take longer to fall into that deep stage of sleep that we call REM, notable for your eyes’ rapid movement.

The scientific breakdown of brainwave energy also notes a difference in type of wave. Your brain produces alpha, theta, beta, delta and gamma waves. Those with depression showed less alpha wave activity in their brains (Barlow, 2021). Alpha waves indicate calm and elated feelings, which were not as present in these individuals.

Some studies have shown that people with depression have an overactive amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions. When participants viewed images of happy and sad faces, “the amygdala of depressed people is extremely active when compared to the amygdala of non-depressed people, yet when viewing happy faces, amygdala activity is not distinguishable between the two groups,” (Queensland Brain Institute, 2020). Those with depression often feel the weight of sadness much more so than any other feeling, and much more than non-depressed individuals.

Studies on Suicide

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Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents today (Barlow, 2021). Across the entire population of the United States, it is the tenth highest cause of death (Barlow, 2021). While it can be a very uncomfortable and saddening topic, it has become something that has affected a lot of people in today’s world. From suicidal war veterans to children who are struggling with their mental health during times of COVID-19, this is a conversation that can no longer be ignored.

Suicide also does not directly link to a mood disorder. Suicidal thoughts can come about without the presence of disorders such as depression, mania or anxiety. The contagion idea surrounding suicide is that those who witness the loss of a loved one will often feel immense pain.

Causal Studies and Portrayal in the Media

Suicide is romanticized in the media. Have you ever seen Thirteen Reasons Why? The main character, Hannah Baker, recorded thirteen tapes to leave behind after her death, that individually outline the reasons why she took her life. Each episode is then dedicated to one “reason,” which is often either a specific person or a situation, in the form of flashback. The visuals in Thirteen Reasons Why can be very traumatic and triggering to those that are experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety themselves.

After the release of Thirteen Reasons Why in 2017, suicide rates exponentially grew. Between the ages of 10 and 17, suicide rates grew by nearly 30% compared to the monthly rates of the past 5 years (NIMH, 2019). The data collected from 2013 up until 2017 showed significantly lower rates of suicide in children and teenagers, with the spike directly after the show’s release on March 31, 2017. Homicide rates during this time period and the next 2 years following the release of the show, through April of 2019, showed no increase. The only spike was in suicide rates, and specifically in those under the age of 17. There was no significant increase in suicide rates from ages 18 to 64 (NIMH, 2019).

This proves the sensitivity of those who are exposed to such shows and topics. The graphic images in Thirteen Reasons Why may seem harmless to some viewers, yet others who are struggling with their mental health may experience it differently. The same idea can be seen with news reports. In studies on publicly reported suicides, suicide rates have shown to increase if the news explains how the person took their life, giving viewers potential ideas (NIMH, 2019).

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Controversy: Is Suicide “Contagious?”

No, not in the way that an infectious disease is contagious, but rather potentially in the emotional response of those around someone who has committed suicide.

Plus, side note: We need a better way of phrasing, “commit suicide.” Ever thought of why we use the word, “committed?”

This is because suicide used to be considered a federal crime. It still is considered a felony in some countries around the world today. Our understanding of mental health and psychological disorders was nearly nonexistent hundreds of years ago. If someone attempted to kill themself, they were believed to be insane rather than struggling, and therefore were given little sympathy. I don’t like using the word “committed” for that exact reason. A suicidal person is not a criminal, and should rather receive the help that they need to gain stability and care, not be thrown in jail.

The effects of suicide on those around them can be devastating. In Journal of Adolescence, 138 college students and their roommates completed questionnaires on stress and suicide. Results found that as one roommate’s stress levels rise, the others’ will likely as well. They drew the conclusion that, “shared stress simultaneously affects the suicidality of people whose contiguity was pre-arranged by an assortative relating process,” or rather that the students who chose to live together were more closely linked on an emotional level (Joiner, 2003).

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Similarly to stress, feelings of depression can also be shared between roommates. In another study by Thomas E. Joiner Jr, 96 pairs of college roommates were studied over the course of 3 weeks on their reported symptoms of negative life stress, depression, anxiety, and reassurance seeking (Joiner, 1994). The controlled variable was depression, which geared this experiment towards the viewing of depressive symptoms between roommates. The findings concluded that, “roommates of depressed target students became more depressed themselves over the course of the 3-week study,” (Joiner, 1994, p. 287).

Conclusion

While it certainly isn’t always the case, energy can have a contagious effect.

Our actions and our environment fluidly influence one another. Just as watching a sad movie may make you feel down, we tend to feel empathetic for the people in our lives as well. Understanding one another is the first step to support. Recognition of mood disorders and general emotions regardless of any diagnoses is important to keep your mental health in check.

While suicide itself may not creep around like the flu, research has shown that it draws effects on the person’s surrounding environment. Stress, anxiety and depression can have similar effects concerning people that are around each other often.

Greet your friends with a smile, and even the littlest gestures can make the world of a difference. You never know what someone is going through just by looking at them.

Spread the love – it’s contagious, too.

Yours Truly,

Cat Taylor

Works Cited:

Barlow, D. H., Durand, V. M., Lalumiere, M. L., & Hofmann, S. G. (2021). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach. Nelson Education Ltd.

Joiner, T. E. (1994). Contagious Depression: Existence, Specificity to Depressed Symptoms,and the Role of Reassurance Seeking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology67(2), 287–296. 

Joiner, T. E. (2003, April 5). Contagion of suicidal symptoms as a function of assortative relating and shared relationship stress in college roommates. Journal of Adolescence.

Queensland Brain Institute. (2020, April). Depression and the brain. Retrieved from https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-diseases/depression/depression-and-brain. 

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