With depression affecting approximately 9.5% of American adults in a given year (1) 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:
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- 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.
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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.