Ever felt like the moods of the people around you affect your own mood? Psychologists have long been interested in the idea of such emotional “spillover”, especially in relationships. For example, research has shown that happiness is contagious, as are bad moods across a range of stressful situations. It seems intuitive that if we are living with someone who is depressed then our own mood could also be negatively affected.
Before getting into specific research on this topic, I should note that it is generally hard to disentangle the exact nature of the association between two people’s mental states, especially when they spend a lot of time together. Was Joan’s depression a reaction to being surrounded by John’s depressive, or were they both depressed all along? (Or is there no relationship whatsoever between their mental health statuses?). Bottom line: like many things, the only way to really know whether two individuals’ mental states spill over to one another is to look at both of their mental health status across time.
New research1 investigating mental health of individuals with cancer and their spouses did just this; researchers examined the relationship between the partners’ mental health status over time in couples across the U.S. Researchers asked both members of a married couple (one having been diagnosed with cancer and the other being cancer-free) questions assessing depressed mood, psychological distress, and physical and mental quality of life at two time points, approximately 11 months apart. In all, 910 couples answered these questions, as did a similar number of couples who were cancer-free that were included in this analysis.
Because they were looking at a lot of variables over time, the researchers were able to disentangle which partner’s mood was affecting the other (i.e., which came first). What they found was that poor mental health of the spouse without cancer at the first time point was strongly associated with the mental health status for the other member of the couple, the member who had been diagnosed with cancer, at the second time point. In fact, the partner with cancer was over four times more likely to report elevated depression nearly a year later if their spouse had scored high on the depression measure or reported poor health-related quality of life initially. When the partner reported higher mental and physical quality of life initially, the spouse with cancer was 30% less likely to report subsequent depression. These patterns were not evident in the sample of couples that did not have cancer. Thus, this spillover or emotional contagion appears to be something unique to stressors experienced by spouses of cancer survivors.
Not all spouses with cancer with a depressed caregiver spouse fared the same though. These data suggest that female cancer patients/ survivors fared worse than males diagnosed with cancer when their spouse had reported depressed mood initially. Do women, on average, have a harder time than men coping with their spouses’ negative mood or health (even when they are the “patient”)? Or when women are considered to be the “patient”, do they interpret the meaning of their spouses’ mood or health differently? The measures used in the study could not shed light into these questions.
Incidentally, the researchers also looked at the inverse relationship (the effect of the spouse’s mental health who had been diagnosed with cancer on the other spouse) and found a much weaker relationship. The researchers suggest that there appears to be something about a spouse’s emotional health as caregiver, which can spill over onto the emotional health of a cancer survivor. Whether it is something related to the burden of caregiving that may be communicated to the spouse with cancer, or something about relying on your spouse when your spouse is having a hard time, this research raises interesting questions.
Though this study focused on the effect of cancer caregiving on a non-caregiving spouse’s mental health, there are many things to consider when thinking about your own relationship when dealing with stressful circumstances, whatever they are. Yes, under certain stressful circumstances, depression can certainly spread and happiness, so to speak, can be contagious. So consider carefully what you’d like to catch and what you’d like to spread.
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1Litzelman, K., & Yabroff, K.R. (2015). How are spousal depressed mood, distress, and quality of life associated with risk of depressed mood in cancer survivors? Longitudinal findings from a national sample. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, 24(6), 969-977.
Marni Amsellem, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis) is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in health psychology. She is a research consultant with hospitals, organizations, and corporations, as well as a practitioner. Her research interests include how physical health and health-related behaviors affect individuals and their relationships, and vice versa. You can reach her via twitter @smartpsychreads.