Get out there. Meet people. Socialize. It’s what we are likely to hear when we’re down in the dumps, and it’s solid advice. Social interaction can create emotional connections that have the power to lift our mood. But the same strategy may have much less effect when what we’re feeling is not just a temporary case of the blues but depression.
An intriguing new study compared those with untreated depression to those who weren’t depressed and found that the groups experienced social encounters differently. The mood boost that came with positive interaction faded fast for the depressed participants, while the pain of social rejection lingered. In short, the good social experiences had less power to help and the bad had more power to hurt.
It’s another reminder that major depression is a disorder of the brain, not just sadness, and we can’t expect the same prescription to work on both. Socializing can be a tonic when we’ve had a discouraging day, but don’t expect it to jolly you out of depression.
Measuring Acceptance and Rejection
To gather their data, the study’s research team – representing the University of Michigan Medical School, Stony Brook University and the University of Illinois at Chicago – set up a simulated online dating scenario. They gathered 17 participants who met the criteria for major depression but who weren’t currently being treated for the disorder, along with 18 non-depressed participants. Each was allowed to pick out the individuals they found most appealing romantically from among hundreds of profiles.
Using positron emission tomography (PET), the researchers then scanned the participants’ brains as they were told some of the potential partners they had selected did not return their interest. Interestingly, even though the participants knew the online dating was simulated and the rejection wasn’t real, the brain scans showed it still had the power to hurt. And the people it hurt most were those dealing with untreated depression. The scans revealed their brains released fewer natural opioids – chemicals that provide pain and stress relief – meaning the pain of the rejection could not be shrugged off as easily.
When the participants were told about individuals who did return their interest, however, the researchers were encouraged to find both the depressed and non-depressed participants reported feelings of happiness and acceptance. The good mood evaporated quickly for the depressed group, however, and only the non-depressed group said they felt inspired to pursue further social interaction. Again, differences in the reaction of the brain’s opioid system got the blame.
The good news is that the findings may lead to new ways to target these brain circuits and boost the opioid response, thus helping those who are depressed get more out of their experiences with others while being better able to bounce back from social disappointment. The researchers plan follow-up studies.
Setting Realistic Expectations
For now, what is a depressed person to do? As the study shows, socializing can seem much less worth the effort when we’re depressed, but that, of course, is when we need its benefits most. Making emotional connections can help provide a needed base of support even if it doesn’t translate to a depression cure. It’s also important to note that the study found that positive social experiences do indeed have the power to lift the mood of the depressed person – it’s just that the boost doesn’t last as long. Still, the results stand as proof that even major depression doesn’t negate all the good to be had from interacting with others.
What is wise, however, is to be realistic about what you can expect from socializing when you are depressed – potential good, yes, but not the solution. Depression responds best to treatment, and fortunately, there are multiple avenues that can help – psychotherapy, medication, positive psychology techniques, or combinations of these and more. We should remember, too, that the study participants had not yet been treated for their depression; creating a support network through socializing can become an important component in a treatment plan. If you suspect you’re dealing with depression, reach out for help from a doctor or mental health specialist. But in the meantime, don’t give up on the rest of the world.