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If you have a friend or loved one with depression, their behavior can drive you up the proverbial wall. Sometimes, you might grow so exasperated that you say things you don’t genuinely mean.
Words have power, and when someone has depression, they can cause mortal wounds. Learn to curb your tongue when one of these ten phrases forms behind your teeth. Your restraint can save the relationship and maybe even a life.
Were you expecting your friend to say, “You’re right! Let me flick my mental switch. There you go. Now I’m happy.” Unless their voice drips with sarcasm, they won’t respond this way. They may want to snap — at you.
However, if curing depression was as straightforward as powering through a cranky mood, Americans wouldn’t spend $210 billion annually on antidepressant medications. Instead, say, “It seems like today is challenging for you. Do you want to talk about it?”
Lots of negative events pass — look at history — but that doesn’t make them any less traumatic. When someone experiences a severe shock, like witnessing a shooting, the conflict may only last a few seconds, but the aftershocks can last for years, even a lifetime. Dismissing a depressed person’s emotions only makes them feel more abnormal and guilty.
Life isn’t fair, you shouldn’t stare directly at the sun, and hot stoves burn careless fingers. The phrase, “Thank you, Captain Obvious,” comes to mind. Please remember that the depressed person isn’t an ignorant child. They don’t expect to win all the time — but that doesn’t change how they feel. Instead, validate their emotions by saying, “You’re right, it’s not right. How can we make the best of the situation, though?”
Depressed people carry an enormous burden of guilt already. One 2012 study indicated that individuals with depression react differently to this emotion than those without the disorder. They struggle to couple their knowledge of appropriate behavior with feelings of remorse. While you might not think you did anything wrong by yelling “ouch” if someone accidentally steps on your toe, someone with depression might beat themselves up for days for overreacting. Implying in word or deed that the person is using their mental illness to gain attention only compounds these guilty feelings and leads to further withdrawal.
Yeah, lots of people have it better, too. Do you feel destitute because you’re not Jeff Bezos? Comparisons are meaningless because they don’t speak to the interior landscape of the depressed individual. They also ignore the complicated factors that influence the disease. On the surface, two different people might face a similar stressor, like a lost job. However, if one has a healthy emergency fund and a well-employed spouse while the other lives paycheck-to-paycheck, their emotional reactions will probably vary significantly.
Three words to the wise — don’t go there. This advice goes double if you are male. Yes, some women do have a disease called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) that can cause severe depression some weeks of the month. Unless you are their gynecologist, it isn’t your job to inquire about their hormones.
Many people with depression lose interest in activities that formerly brought them joy — it’s one of the diagnostic criteria for the disease. They probably already feel tremendous guilt for staying on the couch while everyone else heads to happy hour. Do encourage them to join you on outings and keep the invitations coming even when they say no once too often. Don’t make them feel more inadequate than they probably already do.
Your depressed loved one already feels like they’re living in one of Dante’s lower levels. Implied warnings that life will only become harder as time passes could push them over the edge if they’re feeling suicidal. They might think, “If there’s no hope of things improving, why continue to try?” You might think you mean the words in jest, but to someone in despair, they seem prophetic.
As Harper Lee wrote in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you never really know a person until you climb into their skin and walk around in it. Sometimes, depression does arise from imbalances in neurotransmitters. More often, a combination of environmental and genetic factors make the perfect storm. Life stressors can cause biochemical changes in the brain, and you should no more imply that a depressed person is faking it than you would a cancer patient.
Think about the last time you felt livid, and somebody else told you to calm down. How did you react to those words? They probably felt like nails on a chalkboard, and you either attacked or withdrew into your thoughts. Telling a depressed person to smile creates the same dynamic. It doesn’t improve the situation — if anything, now they feel both down and resentful.
It’s challenging to deal with someone who is depressed, and it’s natural to feel exasperated at times. However, controlling your emotions and checking your tongue can keep you from cutting someone who is already bleeding more deeply.