By Melissa Grant and Allie Hunt
Well-meaning friends and family often make comments and suggestions to those of us struggling with depression and anxiety. Their intentions come from a good place, but they don’t always understand how mental illness works or how overwhelming an otherwise simple task can be in the midst of a depression or anxiety episode.
We’ve compiled a few of the many (ahem) “helpful” things people say. While we usually give a measured, socially appropriate response, what we’re really thinking is sometimes quite different.
In the spirit of humor, here is a peek behind the curtain into what we sometimes wish we could say — and some suggestions of more helpful things to say if you really want to help an anxious or depressed person.
What they say: You don’t look like you have depression/anxiety.
What we think: I’m sorry, I should have worn my “I have a mental illness” t-shirt today.
What they say: Just choose to be happy!
What we think: Great idea! And maybe you can choose to become fluent in Finnish by next week.
What they say: It’s all in your head
What we think: EXACTLY! Where else is it going to be?
What they say: Just have more faith
What we think: #$@#%!
What they say: I have been depressed/anxious before.
What we think: I am so glad you had a natural reaction to a stressful situation. However, I feel this way ALL THE TIME and can’t even tell you why.
What they say: Why are you freaking out? It’s not a big deal.
What we think: Because it feels like a 5,000-pound person is sitting on my chest with no intention of leaving.
What they say: Exercise really helps me.
What we think: You might as well suggest someone with two broken legs start running in the mornings.
What they say: I have been depressed before and I still functioned fine.
What we think: I feel out of breath after climbing five flights of stairs, but I’m not going to give advice to an asthmatic because that’s what works for me.
What they say: Just imagine everyone in their underwear.
What we think: Now I’m even more anxious!
What they say: Maybe you just need to go outside and get some fresh air.
What we think: Why would I do something so simple to relieve this horrendous darkness and despair I feel?
What they say: You just need to be more grateful or count your blessings.
What we think: If I could “feel” anything at all that just might work.
What they say: When you get depressed call me and we’ll go out.
What we think: Trust me, if I could do that, then I could also be holding down a job, maintaining a relationship and having a social life.
What they say: You’re just being dramatic.
What we think: How dramatic would I be if I throat punched you right now?
Now, clearly, we acknowledge it's never okay to treat people poorly or use depression or anxiety as an excuse — and no one should subject themselves to ill treatment from depressed or anxious loved ones.
We also recognize that some of these suggestions make a lot of sense — think happy thoughts, go exercise, call your friends! — and ordinarily, they would help. But that’s just it — deep depression and severe anxiety aren’t ordinary, and they make these things nearly impossible to do.
If you really want to support someone dealing with depression or anxiety, may we suggest a few other, more helpful approaches?
Tell us we're not alone, not abandoned, and not forgotten. Sometimes there isn't anything you can say or do to help, and you don't need to fix it or offer suggestions.
Just listen and ask questions. Recognize that just like you don't know what it's like to have cancer if you haven't had it, you don't know what it's like to have been chronically depressed or had serious social anxiety if you haven't experienced it.
Express your love and acknowledge that you want to help, but need help to understand how best to help.
Talk to us just like you would to anyone else. We desperately want to feel normal, so tell us about your day and how you're feeling. Help us get outside our own heads.
Tell us the depression and anxiety don't define us — that isn't who we are. It's just something we have to deal with and manage.
Don't say anything at all. Just give us hugs — even if we are prickly and look detached.
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