“…I’ve been depressed since my baby was born…”
“…I’ve been unhappy for years, but it got even worse when I lost my job…”
“…I keep thinking that if I’m just strong enough I can just get over it…”
Depression is often seen as an individual problem. But new research shows that in many cases, the best treatment for depression might be improving your relationship.
The Negative Spiral: Depression and Relationships
Depression, no matter what it’s cause, is hard on relationships. For Ana, one of my clients, it started when she lost her job. She was bothered that Nick, her husband, was now the sole provider for their family. She wanted to contribute too. And the loss of meaningful work in her life took a toll on her self-esteem. Nick tried to cheer her up by pointing out her skills and abilities. But to Ana it felt like he didn’t understand her inner struggle, and she got frustrated. She told Nick she needed some “space”. Eventually Nick felt shut out and alone, and stopped trying. Ana felt alone with her moods and even more misunderstood.
This pattern is a common one. It’s hard to know a loved one is depressed, and at some point most people will try to encourage and inspire them. But the person who feels depressed is often caught up in a complex and confusing mix of negative thoughts and feelings. Support, whether it’s “cheering up” or helping out more, can start to feel like pressure and disapproval. Depression is often a mix of sadness and anger, plus guilt for not being able to “snap out of it”. In a relationship, eventually neither person feels effective, and both feel depressed.
It’s not only that depression affects relationships. The quality of your relationship is also a strong predictor of whether you will feel depressed. Distressed relationships create depression; good relationships buffer you from it. When a relationship is going well, most people feel appreciated, supported, and loved. When a relationship is distressed, most feel frustrated, anxious, and depressed. We respond to each other’s moods in many ways. According to Michael Yapko, “our brains change in measurable ways in response to other people….depression is contagious (1).
A Growing Problem
Depression has become a worldwide problem. The World Health Organization estimates depression to be the fourth leading cause of suffering worldwide, and rising. A national study found that depression affects about 9% of the U.S. Population each year (2). Less than half of these people seek treatment, and most of those who do use medication. The possibility of a fast and easy cure has appeal. But while medication helps some people, recent research suggests that drugs commonly used to treat depression are about as effective as a placebo. Clearly new approaches are needed.