A friend asked me for advice recently. Since I’m hardly the expert on, well, anything, I was humbled and flattered that she wanted my opinion.
Basically, she asked me how to talk about mental health with loved ones.
How do you explain your feelings of sadness, anxiety, or hopelessness to someone who hasn’t dealt with those feelings themselves?
How do you justify having a good day when you’ve told someone you regularly deal with mental health issues?
I can imagine it’s confusing to see someone you love go through the ebbs and flows of depression, anxiety, or even the occasional blues, especially when they can’t really point to one thing as the root of all those feelings.
When you catch a cold, you have very noticeable symptoms: stuffy nose, coughing, sneezing.
When it comes to depression and anxiety, however, it isn’t so obvious. Symptoms of these mental health disorders vary and will often be mistaken for being lazy or tired. So unlike someone saying they have a cold, saying you deal with depression or anxiety (or both) might just sound like an excuse.
We’ve been conditioned to believe we have to show physical signs of illness to be taken seriously. But why? Just because you can’t see mental illness doesn’t mean it’s not there.
So how do you tell that to your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your spouse or your family?
Well, first off, let me just say I know it’s not an easy thing to talk about. So even doing any of the following is courageous of you. I should also note that these aren’t end-all be-all solutions; even if you haven’t been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, we all know that talking about feelings can be really difficult. These are just some things that have helped me.
Remind them that it’s not their fault.
Maybe you’ve acted distant, standoffish, or just very much unlike yourself. To your loved one, it may feel like they’re the culprit. If we’re talking about romantic relationships specifically, your significant other might feel like they have something to do with your unhappiness.
But it’s not them. It’s the way your mind is wired. And though they might not believe it, you need to remind them that you’re not trying to make them feel bad. They didn’t do anything to make you feel this way, and they shouldn’t take it personally.
Ask them for help.
Even if it’s as simple as asking them to be patient with you or asking them to give you a little breathing room, let them know they’re on your team and that you need them. There will be times when there’s nothing they can do but ride it out with you. Just ask them to listen and be there when you need it.
Talk about it.
Sometimes it helps to have an honest, open conversation about it. Give them the chance to ask any questions they may have. You don’t have to have an answer or get to the bottom of anything, but just talking about the way you feel can be therapeutic if you’re comfortable with it.
For me, my anxiety can appear unannounced, but it’s usually triggered by my worrying mind and the fact that I agonize over things that haven’t yet happened. In those cases, it helps to talk about a specific scenario and walk through potential outcomes. Think about what feelings might come up and how you can squash them or avoid them altogether.
I’ll give you an example. In October I took my first trip overseas to attend a wedding in Scotland. When I first booked the ticket early in the summer, I was SO excited. I was visiting Europe for the first time! I’d be with friends! At a wedding! But as the trip got closer, I started getting really anxious.
I worried about the dynamic of the friend group. These girls are all my friends, but they share a special bond from living in Chicago for several years. Will I feel left out?
I was worried about logistics. What are we going to do once we arrive? I’m not good at taking the lead. Will someone else make decisions?
I was worried about having a good time. (I know. Crazy, right?) I can’t hang like I used to. What if I get sleepy and can’t party like everyone else?
Before the trip, my therapist and I talked through some of these scenarios. She told me to visualize arriving in Scotland. Getting off the plane. Walking through the airport. What would happen next? And then what? And what would you say/do? And what if [insert a situation here] happens?
Most of my answers were some variation of, “well, we’d be really excited to be there…” or “I just know I’m going to have the best time.” It sounds kind of silly, but after talking it all out I realized that my anxiety was NOT reality; it was completely unfounded.
Whether or not visualizing and walking through each step helps you find some clarity like it did for me, simply talking about it with a loved one (or a therapist!) might help.
So here’s a little serving of some cold hard truth: They might never understand why you feel the way you feel. They can empathize, sure, but it’s one of those things that’s difficult to fully understand unless you’ve lived it.
Just remember: you’re not alone. SO MANY PEOPLE are on your side and know how you feel.