Jeff Zuckerman and his wife had been married for 30 years when she started battling bipolar disorder and depression. She had her first monthslong manic episode in the spring of 2015. Immediately after, she was thrust into a severe depression. The health crises rocked the couple’s marriage.
“You have to understand that for her, depression is not sadness so much as it is emptiness,” explained Mr. Zuckerman, 68, who is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis. When his wife’s depression was at its worst, she remained in bed, with the blinds drawn, for months. She stopped showering and hardly spoke.
“This is a woman who had been so active, who had run our family. She was a mom, she worked, all of that stuff, and then she fell into this depression that was so deep,” said Mr. Zuckerman, who wrote a book — “Unglued: A Bipolar Love Story” — about loving a spouse in the grips of mental illness.
When helping your partner weather a battle with depression, experts say there are ways to be supportive while also caring for yourself.
Learn more about depression.
Familiarizing yourself with some of the physical and emotional markers of depression may help you identify if your partner is simply in a bad mood, burned out or is living with depression. Common signs include loss of interest in regular activities, changes in appetite or sleep or unexplained physical symptoms, such as headaches or back pain that tend to last for at least two weeks, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Learning more about what depression is and how it affects people may also help you protect yourself emotionally, respond with more empathy and avoid taking your partner’s behaviors personally.
“If one partner doesn’t understand that their partner is suffering from depression, they may mistake things like a loss of interest in romance or sex as a personal rejection,” explained Xavier Amador, a clinical psychologist and co-author of “When Someone You Love Is Depressed.”
Cultivate curiosity about your partner’s experience.
When your partner is in pain, you may feel an urge to dive right in and tell them what you think is happening. But try to lead by asking questions, Dr. Amador said. Ask your partner how they are feeling. Tell them you’d like to understand more about what they’re going through.
If your partner is defensive, Dr. Amador recommends a strategy known as “reflective listening.” For instance, if you ask your loved one how they are feeling and they tell you they are fine and there is nothing wrong, you respond with something along the lines of: “What you’re telling me is that there’s nothing wrong, is that correct? Can I tell you what I’ve noticed?” Dr. Amador explained.
If you make an effort to lead with questions rather than rushing to share your opinion, your partner is more likely to feel heard and valued, not judged, he said.
Acknowledge your own limitations.
To help a loved one get diagnosis and treatment, you can call potential providers and set up appointments, or compile a list of clinicians for them to contact. But experts say it is also important to remember that you cannot force anyone to get help, and that pushing too hard can backfire.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Lily Brown, director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety with the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “Of course, you want to make yourself available to talk and to suggest how they can get help, but if you’re doing too much driving the boat, the person who is struggling with depression actually can start to feel a little more helpless and a little more hopeless.”
She added that partners who put too much care-taking responsibility on themselves are also often overcome with feelings of guilt and shame when they are unable to fix the problem.
You shouldn’t have to be your partner’s sole support, especially in situations where they may be in danger. Keep in mind that depression can increase the risk of self-harm and suicidal thoughts — and the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline offers resources to find help for a loved one in crisis.
Prioritize your own mental health.
Romantic partners can affect each other’s health and health-related behaviors in ways good and bad, and Dr. Amador noted there is some research to suggest that depressive symptoms can be, in a way, contagious.
“If you’re living with somebody who is depressed and feeling helpless — and oftentimes doesn’t want to get help — then you can start to feel depressed and helpless,” Dr. Amador explained.
It is imperative that you support your own mental health, both Dr. Amador and Dr. Brown emphasized. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, reach out to a health care provider for evaluation. But even if you are not, you may find it helpful to see a therapist or to join a peer-led support group.
Mr. Zuckerman is a volunteer facilitator of a National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, support group for families and partners of people with mental health conditions. And it has helped him connect with a community of people who understand what he is going through. Every other week, Mr. Zuckerman and 10 to 15 or so other partners discuss coping skills; help each other process feelings of grief or guilt; and offer a safe space to share their challenges and successes.
Make time for things you enjoy.
In addition to connecting with a therapist or support group as needed, it is also important to find other ways to prioritize self-care. It does not have to be time-consuming or complicated, Dr. Brown said. Simply getting out of the house for a bit and making time for the activities you enjoy can help protect your own emotional well being when your partner is struggling.
Spend time outside in nature, get involved in some form of advocacy or move your body. Research has shown, for instance, that jogging for 15 minutes a day, or doing less strenuous exercise like walking or gardening for an hour, may have a protective effect against depression.
And “socialize, socialize, socialize — whatever that looks like for you,” Dr. Amador recommended. “It is really important to get that social support and release.” You may encourage your partner to join you in your efforts to get out and exercise or connect with others, but keep in mind that loss of interest in normal activities or hobbies is a symptom of depression.
Mr. Zuckerman’s wife — who has given her husband her blessing to share their story, but only without disclosing her name — has been stable for three years, and said things between the couple are “great.” They go to movies, concerts and dance performances together. They cook, spend time with their grandchildren and attend synagogue.
But Mr. Zuckerman also continues to remind himself that it is not selfish for him to prioritize self-care.
“We fundamentally love our partners and our spouses, and at a gut level, we know it’s an illness. We know you can’t blame somebody for being sick,” Mr. Zuckerman said. “Yet what we go through as a result of it can be overwhelming.”
Those who suffer from seasonal depression meet the criteria for clinical depression, but they see their symptoms improve with the onset of warmer seasons...Photo Illustration by Chris Fertnig, Getty Images
When he moved from South Africa to New York City, Norman Rosenthal noticed he felt more depressed during the cold, short days of the city’s winters than he had in his home country. “It was an illness hiding in plain sight because people said ‘well that’s how everyone feels in winter.’ They didn’t see it as treatable,” says Rosenthal, a psychiatrist at Georgetown Medical School.
In 1984, he published the first paper to scientifically name the winter blues: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called seasonal depression, was a type of depression brought on by the dark days of winter. Subsequent studies have found that this form of depression varies by geography. As much as three percent of the general population is thought to experience SAD, but one study Rosenthal published in 1990 found that the condition became more prevalent in the U.S. in northern latitudes, with as many as 10 percent of New Hampshire residents reporting the condition.
And, surprisingly, about 10 percent of patients suffering from SAD have symptoms in the summertime instead. Whether in winter or summer, mental health experts say there are solutions to treat SAD.
A bad mood versus a SAD mood
It’s normal for moods to fluctuate with seasons and even for people to feel a little more down in the winter, experts say, but those suffering from SAD experience the symptoms of clinical depression. “They’re exactly the same,” says Kelly Rohan, a psychologist at the University of Vermont who specializes in the disorder.
“We would look for things like a persistently sad mood. Losing interest in things. Sleep changes. Significant eating or appetite change. Losing energy. Fatigue. Difficulty concentrating,” she says. At Yale’s Winter Depression Research Clinic, the most commonly reported symptoms of winter depression are hypersomnia—the desire to sleep more than usual—and an increased appetite, says Paul Desan, a psychiatrist and the clinic’s director.
“It’s like human beings are trying to hibernate,” says Desan. Most people begin experiencing symptoms in young adulthood, but SAD can begin at any stage of life. The condition also varies by sex. “About three times as many women as men get SAD for reasons we don’t understand,” says Desan…..Continue reading
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder subset, in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, commonly but not always in the wintertime, with reduced sunlight.Common symptoms include sleeping too much, having little to no energy, and overeating.The condition in the summer can include heightened anxiety.
Although experts were initially skeptical, this condition is now recognized as a common disorder. However, the validity of SAD has been questioned by a 2016 analysis by the Center for Disease Control, in which no links were detected between depression and seasonality or sunlight exposure.
Holly Roos and her son Parker, who is autistic, touch feet as they read stories on the couch at their home in Canton, Illinois, 4 April 2012. Photo by Jim Young/Reuters
The concept of ‘neurodiversity’ has gained enormous cultural influence in recent years. Computer scientists and ‘techies’ wear the ‘neurodiverse’ label with pride; businesses are building ‘neurodiverse’ workforces; scriptwriters strive to represent and cast ‘neurodivergent’ people. Those framed as ‘different’ have been given a remarkable new lens through which to reimagine that variance.
The sociologist Judy Singer coined the term ‘neurodiversity’ in the late 1990s. Inspired by other emancipatory social movements based on race and gender, Singer used her standing as an autistic person to rally together neurodivergent people. This was partly a response to what Singer called the ‘social constructivist’ view of autism, where the condition was seen as having no solid biological basis.
This denied the reality of neurological difference, according to Singer. In reply, she offered up ‘neurodiversity’ in the spirit of biodiversity, in that it recognised and respected natural variance among humans. The movement quickly gained support via online forums and new social networks.
Since Singer’s first use of the term, neurodiversity has widened beyond autism to include people who identify with categories such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, bipolar disorder, depression and more. It’s come to mean any real mental differences – neither choices nor simply illnesses – that aren’t problems to solve so much as enrichments for society.
Neurodiversity has done brilliant work in breaking down social barriers, challenging stigmas, and raising awareness. But it also contains limitations, and these are becoming increasingly prominent as the concept expands into new domains. The main premise of the neurodiversity movement is that society should be robust enough to embrace and celebrate all people, no matter how their brains are ‘wired’.
That’s a laudable goal and shouldn’t be tricky for anyone to wrap their head around. Yet since the beginning, critics of neurodiversity have claimed that its mantra of radical acceptance could hinder treatments and interventions for those who are suffering. Embracing neurodivergent thought too enthusiastically, they say, risks distracting from genuine physical, emotional or social needs that require attention.
This debate quickly descends into unhelpful recriminations. But it also distracts from a deeper philosophical problem that neurodiversity must confront as it expands into new territory. Neurodiversity’s vision of inclusion, alluring as it is, tends to rely on the idea that neural wiring is at the root of all differences in how humans relate to the world.
But reducing diversity to brain-based distinctions can stand in the way of more sensitive and potentially fruitful ways of understanding mental life. In fact, the success of neurodiversity has exposed the glaring lack of any shared vision or sense of solidarity around mental difference that isn’t anchored in brain-based accounts. So while we can applaud neurodiversity’s ethos of acceptance, we should question its commitment to achieving legitimacy through false ‘neuro’ certainties.
There is a different way forward, in which we fashion our political advocacy and scientific reasoning not on the brain but the ‘mind’. I call this programme ‘psydiversity’. Psydiversity rejects the claim that mental states can be cleanly and predictably mapped on to the brain. Instead, it augments the valuable work of neurodiversity by demonstrating that mental processes and the way we understand them change and evolve through history.
Indeed, psydiversity holds that the mind and ‘human nature’ are not unitary things, but are profoundly embedded and even constituted by the society and context in which they appear. That isn’t to deny the reality of difference, but rather to situate this reality as part of an unfolding social and historical process.
If there’s one aspect of neurodiversity that’s core to its agenda, it’s the ‘neuro’ prefix. The term ‘neuro’ actually stems from the ancient Greek ‘neûron’ or the Latin ‘nervus’, defining nerves or the nervous system. Contemporary neuroscientific approaches have their origins in the early 19th century, when physiologists such as Franz Joseph Gall, Charles Bell, and François Magendie used a combination of human anatomical studies and terrifying animal vivisections to identify the relation between brain, spinal cord and nervous system.
By the early 20th century, neurologists had created detailed maps of the brain and nervous system, and had named many distinct conditions such as cerebral palsy and hemiplegia. It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that the brain sciences began to really assert themselves in other branches of human knowledge. Via new imaging and genomic testing technologies, evidence emerged that differences in human emotion and behaviour could be traced to differences within people’s brains.
This spawned a number of ‘neuro-’ prefixes that could be attached to subjects as disparate as ‘neuroeducation’, ‘neuroethics’, ‘neuroanthroplogy’, ‘neuroaesthetics’ and ‘neurolaw’. The former US president George Bush called the 1990s the ‘decade of the brain’, while the philosophers Fernando Vidal and Francisco Ortega declared that the neurosciences were leading us to believe that ‘we are our brains’.
Once a treatment or medical tool exists, social, financial and political forces tend to push up diagnoses . All this fervour sprang from the belief that brain-based sciences and genetic research could transform society for the better. When the Dutch geneticist Han Brunner claimed that deficiencies in the MAOA gene could be responsible for an increased propensity to violence, this inspired hopes that moral judgments about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour could be transformed into progressive scientific research and treatment. Continue reading…..
Mandy* says her mother has always had a controlling streak. In something of a nightmare scenario for most kids, when Mandy was 10, her mum got a job at her school. “My mother was telling me who I was and I wasn’t allowed to be friends with. She was prohibiting most people I made friends with,” Mandy says.
“She would actually leave her post during my lunchtime to see who I was hanging out with and if I was following her orders.” Mandy is now in her late 20s. Until a few years ago, she says her mother was still trying to control what she wore — going as far as to pre-approve what she could buy.
“There was one day where I was wearing an outfit that she didn’t like the combination and she started freaking out to the point where she went up to the door and blocked my exit. She would not allow me to leave the house,” Mandy says.
“And she seemed so genuinely frightened of us somehow presenting in a way that wasn’t acceptable to her, and that scared me a little bit.”Mandy says the control extended to what she ate, and she developed an eating disorder between the ages of 11 and 15.
“She was always incredibly controlling of what I was eating, always watching every move.” Mandy says as a child, she would make decisions to please her mother and prevent fights in the house, which left her stressed and insecure.
“Part of that insecurity led me to a period in my teens where I was suicidal for quite a long time, and I had a suicide attempt when I was 15,” she says. She argues that her mother’s immature behaviours — controlling various aspects of her life and reacting angrily when Mandy didn’t follow the rules — has caused her significant problems as an adult.
Who are these emotionally immature parents?
Mandy’s experience isn’t uncommon. In her practice as a clinical psychologist, Lindsay Gibson has come across many people with similar stories. Ms Gibson was “astounded” at the emotional immaturity of parental behaviours reported by clients.
“As I’m listening to them I’m thinking, ‘oh my gosh, her father is acting like a four-year-old, or her mother sounds like a 14-year-old’.” Ms Gibson has seen a range of emotional immaturity – from parents who can be volatile and hysterical, through to those who are cold and rejecting. Many also exhibit controlling behaviours.
She’s encountered this problem so often, she wrote a book about it. One of these impacts can be a disregard for their own feelings and instincts. “They [the parent] teach you to doubt yourself and mistrust your emotional needs, and you can imagine how that plays out later when that person has to figure out what they want to do for a living or decide who to marry,” Ms Gibson says.
“All these things that have to come from an internal sense of guidance.” Mandy isn’t a client of Ms Gibson’s, but says what Ms Gibsondescribes is similar to the impacts her mother had on her. She finally moved out of her parents’ home last year and has since started seeing a therapist.
“I’ve been a people pleaser for many years. “Sometimes a trauma response isn’t just like having panic attacks, sometimes it’s also being a people pleaser because I just want to lessen the conflict.” Ms Gibson argues that emotionally immature parents grew up at a time when there was little emphasis on the emotional needs of children.
Instead, the focus was on the physical needs of children — things like reducing levels of child labour and malnutrition. That changed around the middle of the century. “Around about the 1950s, there was a paediatrician, Benjamin Spock, who began to push this idea that children had emotional needs and that meeting the child’s emotional needs had tremendous importance in their adult life. And so there was an awakening,” Ms Gibson says.
Going no contact
The main strategy advised by psychologists when it comes to parents who may be overbearing or manipulative is to set firm boundaries or guidelines around how other people can behave towards you. Examples of behaviours people might push back on include unwanted visits, or unwelcome advice about how a child is being raised, Ms Gibson says.
“And if you learn how to say no in whatever awkward, frightened, shy way that you want to say no, but you just continue to say what your limits are, that really works pretty well, because emotionally immature people are not prepared for repetition,” she says. That’s a very hard thing for an adult child to do, but it can be done and that’s the way to do it.”
Boundaries are something Mandy says she tried to establish with her parents many times over, but for her it never quite worked. “And of course it all got worse when they realised that I was queer. I kept establishing boundaries around it where I was like, ‘look, my identity is not up for debate’. That was completely dismissed,” she says.
By 2020 she had finally saved enough money to move out of her parents’ home for good. She’s had no contact with them for the past six months. Mandy now helps run an online forum where adult children who have difficult relationships with their parents can swap survival stories, share encouragement and try to heal.
“It’s worth realising that you are deserving of having boundaries, you are deserving of that, even in situations that are not extreme … you are deserving of being respected as a person,” she says. As for how to be a good parent? Ms Gibson says at its core, it’s simple.
“All you have to do is to not only love your child, but be able to see your child as a unique individual who has a real internal world of their own, where everything is just as important as it is to the adult, and there have always been parents who had that sensitivity, thank goodness,” she says.
A scary figure emerges in a doorway at Dystopia Haunted House. Courtesy of Dystopia Haunted House / Henriette Klausen
Fear gets a bad rap. It’s a so-called negative emotion, one that supposedly stands between us and our dreams. It is certainly true that pure fear doesn’t feel good, but that is the whole point of the emotion. Fear tells us to get the hell out of Dodge because Dodge is a bad place. Fear evolved over millions of years to protect us from danger. So, yes, fear is a feel-bad emotion, but also, and perhaps paradoxically, the engine in a whole range of pleasurable activities and behaviors—which inspire what we can call recreational fear.
Once you start looking for it, you’ll find recreational fear everywhere. From a very early age, humans love being jump-scared by caregivers in the form of peek-a-boo, and being hurtled into the air (and caught). They get older and take great pleasure in chase play and hide-and-seek. They are drawn to scary stories about monsters and witches and ghosts. They perform daredevil tricks on playgrounds and race their bikes toward what, from a parent’s perspective, is certain and violent death.
As they grow a little older they get together for horror movie nights, stand patiently in line for roller coasters, and play horror video games. Indeed, most of us never quite lose our peculiar attraction to recreational fear—even if we eschew slasher flicks or dark crime shows brimming with murder, death, and gore.
So even though Dodge may be a bad place, we still keep visiting it, at least from the safe distance of play and make-believe. How come? One hypothesis is that recreational fear is a form of play behavior, which is widespread in the animal kingdom and ubiquitous among humans. When an organism plays, it learns important skills and develops strategies for survival.
Playfighting kittens train their ability to hold their own in a hostile encounter, but with little risk and low cost, compared to the real thing. Same with humans. When we play, we learn important things about the physical and social world, and about our own inner world. When we engage in recreational fear activities specifically, from peek-a-boo to horror movie watching, we play with fear, challenge our limits, and learn about our own physiological and psychological responses to stress. In other words, recreational fear might actually be good for us.
To investigate whether that is indeed the case and why, my colleagues and I have established the Recreational Fear Lab, a research center at Aarhus University, Denmark. We do lab studies, survey studies, and real-world empirical studies to understand this widespread but scientifically understudied psychological phenomenon.
The surveillance footage allowed us to see how guests responded to frightening events, such as a chainsaw-wielding pig-man chasing them down a dark corridor. The heart rate monitors told us about their physiological responses to such events, and the questionnaires allowed us to understand how they felt about it all.
They told us they perceived their experiences as a kind of play, supporting our notion of recreational horror as a medium for playing with fear. But we also wanted to go deeper into the relationship between fear and enjoyment. You might think that relationship is linear—the more fear, the better. But when we plotted the actual relationship between fear and enjoyment, it looked like an upside-down U. In other words, when people go to a haunted attraction, they don’t want too little fear (which is boring), and they don’t want too much fear (which is unpleasant).
What they want is to hit what we call the “sweet spot of fear.” That doesn’t just go for high-intensity haunted attractions either. When you hurtle a kid into the air, you don’t want it to be too tame or too wild; when teenagers joyride their bikes, they need just the right amount of tummy-tickling arousal; when you pick a horror movie on Netflix, you try to go for the one that sits just at the right point on the scare-o-meter.
So, there is pleasure to be had from these vicarious visits to Dodge, but are there any other benefits? In several past and ongoing studies of the psychological and social effects of engagement with recreational fear, we’ve seen it improve people’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety. For instance, one study—led by my colleague Coltan Scrivner—found that people who watch many horror movies exhibited better psychological resilience during the first Covid-19 lockdown than people who stay away from scary movies.
You can think of recreational fear as a kind of mental jungle gym where you prepare for the real thing, or as a kind of fear inoculation. A small dose of fear galvanizes the organism for the big dose that life throws at it sooner or later. So even though fear itself may be unpleasant, recreational fear is not only fun—it may be good for us.
With research findings such as these in mind, we should maybe think twice about shielding kids and young people too zealously from playful forms of fear. They’ll end up in Dodge sooner or later, and they will be better equipped if they’ve at least pretended to be there before.
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