With depression affecting approximately 9.5% of American adults in a given year, knowing how to talk with a friend or loved one whom you feel may be depressed is an important skill to have. Because the very nature of depression causes people to shut down and withdraw emotionally, it may be especially important that you reach out to them as they may be unable to ask for help.
First of all, there is nothing crazy, weak, bad, or wrong about experiencing depression. What some people don’t realize is that depression is one of nature’s primary ways of responding to stress. A few ways this happens include:
- Under pressure, our autonomic nervous system is designed to generate a survival response of fight, flight, or freeze.
- During times of famine, our metabolism is designed to slow down and not burn too many calories to increase the likelihood that we survive.
- When injured, we instinctively know to get to an isolated place to “lick our wounds,” which increases our safety and gives our bodies a better chance to heal.
While our environments have changed, the wiring of our stress response has stayed the same. Being argumentative, withdrawing socially, staying in bed all day, overeating to ensure enough calories, are all subtle forms of the body’s instinct to fight, flee, or freeze in order to survive hardships, wounds, or pain.
There is a field of science called psychoimmunoneurology which says that stress in the mind has a direct impact on the body. A familiar example of this is ulcers which can be a direct result of stress. Similarly, prolonged anxiety releases increased amounts of adrenaline and cortisol which over time can interfere with the brain’s natural chemical balance. Stress can be caused by external factors like losing a job or losing a loved one. Stress can also be caused by internal factors like low self-esteem or fear of not being able to pay the bills.
As people are increasingly under more and more pressure, it is natural that incidents of depression are increasing. The important thing to realize is there is a legitimate reason that people experience a state of depression even if the cause is unclear. Most often depression is situational and temporary; and there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Our mood and biochemistry often changes when the external or internal pressures change.
If you have a loved one you think is depressed, here are five things to consider when preparing to talk with them about their depression.
1. Be prepared to listen openly without judgment: Because depression tends to be a natural result of experiencing pressure, hardship or pain, it may take courage for the person to open up to you and they may feel extremely vulnerable. Do whatever you can to help them feel safe in sharing. Be gentle. Ask questions to draw them out and be prepared that you may not always like or agree with what you hear. No matter what, do not judge. Remember that feelings are not wrong and feelings are not right. Feelings just are. Listening to them and acknowledging them as valid is the first step in helping the person heal.
2. Honor the person’s right to feel their emotions whatever they are: In trying to help, we may want to make negative feelings go away by dismissing them or telling the person they are wrong to feel as they do. Sometimes hearing another person’s distress may cause our own distress and it’s very natural to want to drive uncomfortable feelings away. However, if you inadvertently try to change someone’s feelings before they are ready to change, the person may simply argue their feelings that much stronger to try to make you understand them or clam up and stop talking because you’ve now proven that you don’t understand.
When it comes to handling feelings, the best way out is through. A simple statement like, “I don’t blame you for feeling that way,” can keep the dialogue flowing and help the person find relief.
3. Be supportive and affirming: Because depression is the physiological response of how we interpret stress, it is important to recognize that the depressed person may have limited ability to use their full perspective. While the glass may be half full to you, the depressed person may only be able to see the part that is empty and what is obvious to you may be invisible to them.
Depressed people are often ones who set unrealistically high expectations for themselves. They may have an unreasonably low self-image defining themselves as lazy, worthless, or a failure in experiencing hardships or for not performing at their best. Remind them that being depressed does not mean they are defective or broken. Point out whatever you can to affirm your faith in them and give them a renewed sense of self-confidence and hope.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask safety related questions: Because depression runs a wide range from general low mood to suicide, it can be awkward to know what questions to ask and which ones to skip. The rule of thumb I use is, if it crosses your mind, ask about it.
Remember depression is a form of the flight instinct. In order to get away from pain, people may employ a variety of dangerous tactics from excessively using drugs or alcohol, to cutting themselves, starving themselves, running away from home, or the most extreme form of flight, suicide. If you are concerned that someone you love may be doing things that risk their safety or are having thoughts of harming themselves, ask them directly. If so, assist them in getting professional help. Even if they don’t want the help, you just may save their life.
5. Ask them what you can do to help: People who are depressed often feel hopeless or feel inadequate for needing help, so they may not ask. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help them. Sometimes they may not know what they need but a large amount of the time they will. The needs of each person will be different but take seriously what they tell you and do what you can. While talking with a doctor or therapist is advisable and may be necessary, never underestimate the value of your own ability to also help another human being simply by listening, caring, and being willing to help them.
Talking with a loved one who may be depressed may feel uncomfortable, but because depression is natural, it is something that most of us will experience sometime during our lives. Fortunately, much of the time depression is temporary and even in the event that it is chronic, there are medications that can help. Studies show that changing our associations through talking can also change brain chemistry, (2) so talking with someone you care about might be the thing that makes all the difference.
Originally published on YourTango.