Why Do Depressed People Push Others Away?

Having friends is cool, but have you ever cut everyone off and disappeared for like three months?

Depression manifests differently for each person. It’s no more the forlorn, incapacitated person with bedhead seen in antidepressant commercials, than the polished and high-functioning attorney having liquor for lunch. While some depressed people might feel deep despair, others may be riddled with anxiety, insomnia, or anger. Haphazardly pushing people away is a common side-effect of depression.

While experiencing a bout of depression, it’s often easiest to detach from others for a while. It’s nothing personal – it’s about self-preservation. And, it’s about avoiding the barrage of armchair psychiatry by well-wishers who dispense platitudes like, “What’s wrong with you?” “Things aren’t that bad!” or, the timeless, “Just snap out of it!”

When you’re depressed you lack the energy to make a ham sandwich. The last thing you want to do is explain your low mood to others – even to loved ones.

It takes copious vigor to keep up appearances and sustain your otherwise stable persona during a depressive episode. People can be stunned to see you in an emotionally bleak state when it’s such a radical contrast from your homeostatic “norm.” Such is the pattern of depression.

Most people aren’t depressed 100% of the time. And, tricking people into thinking you’re not depressed is draining. There are few things worse than ‘smiling depression.’ The constant attempts at concealing one’s mental pain only increases the overall burden. And, by avoiding others, we avoid their judgement.

In rarer cases, pushing people away can be a form of self-harm. In such instances, we shun those we most care about because we want to punish or simply hurt ourselves. Sometimes we even want to penalize others for having the audacity to care for this woeful version of ourselves.

But, those of us who unconsciously use this tactic, risk losing people for good. Not everyone understands what depression feels like or how it might play-out. From their perspective, getting blown-off or spurned despite our rationale for doing so isn’t justification for how we’ve made them feel. People aren’t playground swings.

Is there a Healthier Option for the “Pusher?”

  • Practice Self-Care. This includes simply taking time for yourself. From a mental health perspective, when we push people away is often when we need them most. However, you also need to honor your intuition and feelings. If you know that attending a friend’s BBQ on a Sunday when you feel intolerable is too emotional or unpredictable – even possibly casting you in a permanently negative light – then heed that instinct.
  • Nurture with Nature. A 2015 Stanford study found quantifiable evidence that walking in nature can reduce stress and lead to a lower risk of depression. Through a controlled experiment, participants who went on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self) and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. Exercise is a phenomenal antidepressant.
  • Give Props. Being grateful by focusing on gratitude improves physical health. According to a 2012 study published in “Personality and Individual Differences,” grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier. Not only does gratitude do the obvious work of increasing how much positive emotion we feel, it just as importantly robs the negative energy that is the driving force of why we feel so bad. Cite three things for which you are grateful each day, no matter how small.
  • Phone a Freud. There is no shame in seeking help. If stress, anxiety or depression disrupts your life or daily activities, get a mental spotter. It is imperative to know when to seek professional help. The easiest index to use is if your emotions are starting to interfere with your ability to function in daily life. Make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health provider because you may need treatment to get better.

What To Do if You’re the “Pushed?”

      1. Avoid the Urge to Advise. Don’t try to be the person’s therapist. If the depressed individual hints at self-harm or suicide or has been ruminating on the same negative things for weeks, they should consult a therapist for help. Mental disorders can be difficult to appreciate unless you’ve experienced one yourself. Functioning when you’re depressed isn’t about using the right hack, summoning or the gods of willpower. And, your motivational clichés will probably be met with resentment and middle fingers.


      1. Empathize and Fortify. Listen to the depressed person’s feelings nonjudgmentally. Just listen and show empathy. But, then set appropriate boundaries for the benefit of you both. Depressed people can be intensely despondent and tough to support. Do not meet your friend in their depression. Moods are highly contagious. Penn State University, Chair of Psychiatry Alan Gelenberg, M.D. says, When disappointed, we usually feel sad. When we suffer a loss, we grieve. Normally these feelings ebb and flow. They respond to input and changes.” While depression tends to feel heavy and constant. “People who are depressed are less likely to be cheered, comforted or consoled,” adds Gelenberg. Encouraging them to repeat negative feelings will only worsen their misery. Instead, inspire them to do something other than stagger in their own sadness. Ask them what they need and tell them how you are willing to help.


    1. Make Them Laugh. Mark Twain knew it best: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow.”Studies confirm that laughter lowers blood pressure and releases beta-endorphins, a chemical in the brain that creates a sense of joy. Moreover, humor is clinically validated to reduce stress long-term by improving the immune system through the release of neuropeptides, relieving pain, increasing personal satisfaction, and lessening depression and anxiety (source: Mayo Clinic, April 21, 2016). The simple act of smiling causes the brain to release dopamine, which in turn makes us feel happy.  Humor = Calamity + Time. If you’re not funny, that’s okay – that’s what Netflix and cat videos are for.

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