First of all, It is admirable that you are a supporter to those struggling with depression and/ or anxiety. For that I thank you. If you have never dealt with it personally, it can be hard to comprehend how or why others react the way they do. It is obvious that many people are building the courage to speak out about their conditions but there is still a large stigma that casts a shadow over most.
As a person who has struggled with depression and anxiety for the majority of my life it was hard to feel adequate when those around me just simply didn’t understand. Unfortunately, that placed a lot of self-doubt and frustration on myself. I am one to discuss really anything, I have nothing to hide. I’m an open book with a complex mind.
Through my experience with peers, people reaching out to me for loved ones, and observing others reactions to my closest friends – I’ve noticed that certain reactions from those who want to understand actually make matters much worse. So that is why I’m writing you today. We know what we know and we don’t know what we don’t unless it personally enters our life. So these are a few pieces of advice to consider the next time you are around a loved one or someone in an anxious or depressive state of mind:
I. Understand the Symptoms
This may be something you have to ask on a more casual day: What are they feeling? Is it anxiety or depression? There’s a huge difference and often times they go hand in hand.
Anxiety – Anxiety ranges. It can be caused by Social Anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, Bi-Polar, stress, etc. Symptoms include but are not limited to: Light-headedness, increased heart rate, sweating, racing thoughts, shortness of breath.
Anxiety happens quickly. At times it transform into full Panic mode. One moment someone is fine the next they’re are wishing to run out the door and hide from showing their symptoms to peers. Many people suffer their symptoms internally in order to not alarm others around them and release their pain in private.
Depression – Depression also has several factors but the symptoms are different. When someone is going through depression they may react in these certain ways: Inability to perform simple tasks, feelings of “emotional numbness” or extreme emotional reactions, feeling they or life is inadequate, over sleeping from constant mental exhaustion.
Depression can be situational (death of a family member), seasonal (certain times of the year), or a symptom from a larger diagnosis (ADHD, PTSD, Bi-Polar, etc).
Research the symptoms you’ve observed and asked about. Since mental health is now becoming more common to discuss, there is SO much unknown information ready to be released. It doesn’t only help the one you care about but it will significantly help you to have a better understanding and not assume.
II. What To Do and What NOT to Say
It’s clear that you are not in their mind, they know that. This is why it is important to try and know the facts in advance. That way their reaction doesn’t transform into a losing argument for both of you. When someone is having an anxiety or panic attack their body and mind react like a computer with a virus. All the emotions and thoughts collect at once, switching up and moving around so quickly that they can’t keep up. Asking too many questions in the midst of their panic will become aggravating because they can’t even comprehend their own thoughts let alone whatever question you just asked. So here are a few things that may help the process:
***Remember that everyone is different and certain steps may work for some and not others so keep that communication open over time to find what works best for them.***
– When someone panicking is somewhere they feel safe, find a way to hold their attention. Sometimes a swift touch on the arm or a gentle hug will stop them in their tracks to focus on that feeling rather than their racing thoughts. Some people don’t like to be touched and push away which in some cases are stemmed by a traumatic event that took place in their past (PTSD). In that case, being present and making eye contact when possible can be just enough. If someone is comfortable enough to have you around when they are panicking, that is a very rare occasion that needs your immediate attention. You don’t always have to say or do anything but your presence and reassurance is important.
– When someone is in a state of depression it helps to make small suggestions. For instance, going on a walk. At first they may be hesitant and want to stay right where they are but with a little encouragement they will drag their feet out the door and realize a some fresh air is actually a nice release. Often times, people suffering depression are trying to comprehend their emotions and keep to themselves about it. Although talking is wonderful, sometimes being that guide in silence works best. When the time is right they will open up slowly and talk.
– When your help doesn’t seem to be doing the trick it’s not wrong to suggest therapy. BUT be careful in how you present it. Therapy has it’s own stigma and it can be a touchy subject for some. If you are able, I would advise to suggest going with them for the first time. Going with them will ensure they actually go. It’s worth a shot, what do they have to lose?
– Stay away from saying: “It’s just a phase”, “Just be happy!”, “anxiety/depression doesn’t exist”, “You need help”, “calm down”, “you’re just sad” or anything that belittles the situation. Most don’t bring it up until it’s at an alarming state for them. I ensure you that if these words come out of your mouth, they will shut you out.
– Stay away from bringing other people into the conversation when someone has an episode. Trying to gain reassurance from peers because you desperately want your perspective to be seen is NOT the solution. People struggling with anxiety or depression already feel their actions are sought as invalid, you don’t need to put anyone in that awkward position. This moment isn’t about you. Again, you will get shut out.
– Stay away from forcing conversation. Communication is key in many situations but not in all. Especially when someone is going through depression. Presence is power but forcing communication can be toxic and cause frustration in that state. If someone isn’t ready to talk, they won’t have it – that’s it. However, if you are present and have an open heart eventually they will begin to release their thoughts. Understand that it is not easy for someone to explain something they don’t fully understand themselves. Building trust will be your access to their mind.
III. My Most Important Advice…
Let me just say it is amazing when someone puts in the effort to understand. It’s one thing to open up yourself to someone else but when that someone else is hurting you may not know exactly how to react. The most important advice I can give is please Please PLEASE don’t treat your friend, your family, or your significant other struggling as a Charity Case. This is a nightmare for most. Sympathy is one thing but singling a person out can be the worst action you take. We know you want to help but sometimes the best way to help is to be a cheerleader and not the action taker. When someone is ready to make a change they will. In all, your presence and understanding can be the best motivator for someone to WANT to change. No one deliberately wants to feel anxiety or the effects of depression, it just take time to soul search and heal.