What Not to Say to Someone With Depression or Anxiety

Talking to someone with depression or anxiety may feel like walking a tightrope, especially if you’ve never experienced either mental health disorder yourself. On the one hand, you want to be supportive and encouraging and to show that you care. On the other hand, you don’t want to accidentally make your friend feel worse. Here are some common sayings to avoid, and some suggestions of what to say instead:

  1. Why are you sad/upset?
    First, a caveat: this may be a legitimate question when someone has situational depression or anxiety, which means that a specific event triggered their depression or anxiety. For example, the death of a loved one can certainly cause depression and anxiety, as can other traumatic life events.

    Knowing the cause can sometimes help you take specific action. For example, if your friend was fired and is extremely anxious about her ability to get another job, you can help point out all the good traits and job skills that she has. You can give her practical advice on how to search for another job. You can offer to help her update her resume.

 For other people who struggle with depression or anxiety, the feelings come out of nowhere. It’s OK to ask someone why they are sad, but if they answer with, “I don’t know,” it’s important that you believe them. Do not pester them. They are not playing games with you by avoiding the question. The truth is that they don’t know why they feel so sad, upset or anxious. In some ways, this can be even more distressing, because if there is no reason to feel depressed, how can they overcome it?

Depression and anxiety are characterized by chemical imbalances in the brain, and these imbalances can occur regardless of any life event. Instead of persistently asking why, be a great friend and say this: Is there anything you’d like to talk about? I’m here for you if you do want to talk. 

  1. Cheer up!
    Being depressed is not fun, and if depressed people could simply smile their way back to normalcy, they would. If you tell your friend to just “cheer up,” don’t be surprised if your friend calls you Captain Obvious!

Depression and anxiety cannot be willed away. However, many people who struggle with these mental health disorders become very good at masking the symptoms when out in public or on the job. Still, if you know someone well, you will be able to tell when something is “off.”

Perhaps your friend still smiles and laughs during conversation, but doesn’t make much eye contact or sounds insincere. Maybe your co-worker isn’t as chatty as usual and is eating lunch alone more often. Everyone has a bad day here and there, but a bad week is a sign of something deeper, something that can’t be shaken off with a reminder to “cheer up.”

Instead, be a good friend and remind your friend or co-worker that they are valued and loved. “I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself, and I hope you feel better soon. Let me know if there’s anything I can do” is a kind way to acknowledge that you care for your friend, but that you won’t intrude into her privacy by asking a lot of questions. If she wants to open up to you, she will take the opportunity to do so, especially after you’ve expressed some concern.

  1. There is nothing to worry about. It’ll all be fine. To an anxious person, this is the equivalent of “cheer up!” Sure, you may recognize that their fears are overblown, but you are not offering your friend a miracle cure by voicing it. Instead, you give the impression that you’re blowing them off instead of supporting them.

A person who is experiencing a lot of anxiety may have a specific reason for it. There might be a big exam coming up, or a presentation at work. Perhaps they will be travelling alone for a business trip. Many anxious people worry about things in very fine detail, such as, “What if I make a fool of myself while trying the bank drive-thru for the first time?” or “What if I feel sick on the day of the presentation?”

Other times, anxiety is a general feeling of stress that can’t be pinned on a specific event. An anxious person has no reason to believe you when you say that everything will be fine. In their mind, they will always be thinking, “But what if it’s not?”

You can try to talk things out with them and offer sage advice. But one thing you should never do is compound the issue by blowing off their concerns. Then, your anxious friend will have a new worry: “What if my friend thinks I’m stupid and won’t help me?”

Instead, be a good friend and say something to the effect of: “If you need help, I will help in any way I can. I will go with you so you can see how the bank drive-thru line works. You can ask me anything without feeling silly, and maybe it will help you feel less anxious.”

What Else to Say

Whether your friend is experiencing depression or anxiety, the following should be well-received:

  1. How can I help?
  2. Would you like me to go with you?
  3. I love you and I know you’ll feel better again, even if it doesn’t happen overnight.
  4. Let’s take a break. Want to go outside with me?

If you think your friend should see a doctor, and if your friend expresses some interest in this, it can be very helpful for you to schedule the appointment and drive your friend to the first meeting. Sometimes people feel overwhelmed when depressed or anxious, and having a friend to not only listen to them, but to take action and stay by their side can be extremely soothing.

Depression also saps energy out of people, and yet exercise is important for mental and physical well-being. Do your best to coax your friend to get out of bed and do something with you, even if it’s just sitting outside on the deck.

Remember, little acts of kindness go a long way.

By Cathy Habas

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