The way the people around us respond to stressful events â€” whether those people react negatively or positively â€” may be contagious when we are in the midst of a major life transition, a new study says.
Whatâ€™s more, the increased risk of depression that comes withÂ negative thinkingÂ also seems to rub off during these times, the study found.
For the study, researchers looked at 103 pairs of college-freshmen roommatesâ€™ â€œcognitive vulnerability,â€ which is the tendency to think thatÂ negative events are a reflectionÂ of a personâ€™s own deficiency or that they will lead to more negative events. Those with high cognitive vulnerability are at an increased risk of depression, studies have found.
â€œWe found that participantsâ€™ level of cognitive vulnerability was significantly influenced by their roommatesâ€™ level of cognitive vulnerability, and vice versa,â€ the researchers wrote. All roommates in the study were selected randomly; students did not choose their roommates. Only three months of living together was needed for this contagiousness to be seen.
The researchers also found that those who experienced an increase in cognitive vulnerability during the first three months of college had nearlyÂ twice the levelÂ ofÂ depressive symptomsÂ at six months, compared with those who did not experience an increase in cognitive vulnerability, according to the study. The effect was particularly strong when participants were under high-stress conditions.
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Prior to this study, it was thought that cognitive vulnerability didnâ€™t change much once a person passed early adolescence. However, the new findings suggest that duringÂ big transitions in lifeÂ â€” when a person is continually exposed to a new social situation â€” cognitive vulnerability can be altered, the researchers said.
They noted that genetic, biological and environmental factors all likely play a role in a personâ€™s level of cognitive vulnerability.
Further research is needed to determine whether cognitive vulnerability may change over time, the researchers said, noting that college freshmen are in a unique social environment.Â
â€œOur findings are consistent withÂ aÂ growing number of studies that have found that many psychological and biological factors previously thought to beÂ set in stone by adulthoodÂ continue to be malleable,â€ the researchers said.
The study was published online April 16 in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
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