How To Explain Depression To Someone

How to Explain Depression to Someone who Doesn’t Understand

How to Explain Depression to Someone who Doesn’t Understand

Why is it so difficult?

You’ve taken the most important step. You’ve sat down with someone you trust. Maybe it’s a loved one; a partner, a parent, or even a child. You look them in the eyes and think carefully about what to say. Three seconds pass, five, ten, your mouth opens and…..nothing.

Or maybe it’s worse than that. You’ve pushed through the discomfort, trying not to trip over your words and have been able to muster some sort of an explanation (though you know it doesn’t even come close). A part of you waits intently for the perfect response to ease your pain. Instead, they’ve just looked back at you with a puzzled expression. You were trying to calm the thoughts and feelings of being different and disconnected, but in this moment, they’re louder than ever.

And so comes the tough question that I’m attempting to answer today.

How to describe depression to someone who doesn’t have it, get it, or understand!?

Depression isn’t even something that makes sense to you. How in the world are you going to make it make sense to someone else?

This post is a little different from what I usually write about here at Project Monkey Mind. It’s a little bit raw. But that’s because depression is a dark place, so it’s necessary to bring some light to it (terrible pun intended).

There is often a perceived stigma which makes people who suffer from depression not want to share it. This is unfortunate, because openness is what can lead to social connection and recovery. Stigma does not help the problem. In fact, it’s antiquated and serves no one.

Imagine for a second that you had a cold but you feared going to a pharmacy? Or you pulled a muscle but felt the need to avoid going to a physiotherapist? It would be incredibly frustrating, to say the least.

How To Describe Depression To Someone

When we try to describe exactly what depression feels like, there’s a sense that something important is getting lost in translation. To you, it may seem like they’ll just never understand, and to them, it may seem like it just doesn’t make any sense.

One reason it’s tough to share your experience of depression with someone is that it feels like you’re sharing a deep part of yourself. And not a part of yourself you’re proud of. It’s the part that you don’t like, the part that you don’t want the world to see.

It’s your weakness, your dirty little secret, the silent critic that can make you question every compliment you get, every positive experience you have, any sense of self-worth or self-confidence. It’s confusing, exhausting, ugly, and justifiably, not really anyone’s favourite topic of conversation. Sometimes you may not even know why you’re feeling so sad for what may seem like no reason at all.

One mistake that depression sufferers make when trying to explain their illness is that they get stuck focusing on trying to talk about their feelings. Which is natural, the feelings of depression are so strong, they draw all our attention to them.

Unfortunately, there are no words that can communicate the feeling of depression without the person having had a reference experience that would allow them to understand it.

Because it’s so foreign to most people that haven’t experienced it, the best way to explain it is with metaphors and analogies that allow them to relate depression to their own life experiences – like the Pharmacy example above.

Two guys explaining depression

Why is it important to explain depression?

Despite how difficult it can be to try and talk through depression with someone you care about, it’s incredibly important in the management of the illness.

When you’re going through a depressive episode, a lot of the time you can’t rely on your own opinion to point you in the direction of health. It’s therefore crucial that you have someone you trust who can non-judgementally help you see things from outside the bubble of depression. However, to get to that place of trust, you must first open up and allow them to at least begin to understand what’s going on in your mind.

“There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, ‘There now, hang on, you’ll get over it.’ Sadness is more or less like a head cold – with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer.” – Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees

Typically we think of depression as something for the depressive and the therapist to deal with. But it impacts not just the sufferer, but their friends, their loved ones and their wider community. So really, it’s an issue that needs to be managed and understood, by everyone. What I’m trying to do with this article is explain depression so that the loved one, be it a close friend or family member, can best understand what is happening, and how they can effectively deal with it.

How to set the ground for the conversation

Because talking about depression is hard, you need to make sure that it’s a conversation that you don’t need to repeat over and over again.

Here are some ground rules to start the conversation off on the right foot.

  • Make sure that the person you’re talking to knows that this is important to you
  • Let them know how much they mean to you and why you trust them
  • Let them know that the conversation is important and that it would be best if you can have it at a time when they won’t be distracted by their phone or other obligations
  • Make sure that you schedule a time to talk about it
  • Let them know that they don’t need to be worried
  • Be ok with silence and long pauses

What they need to know

#1: Our brains are working in very different ways

My brain is different from yours both structurally and functionally. In fact, chronic depression actually causes brain damage, which means if I’ve been through this before, there is a chance my brain has been permanently altered by it.

To be specific, during and following a depressive episode, the brain’s hippocampus and frontal lobes shrink, meaning it’s very difficult to regulate emotions and focus attention. The amygdala, which is activated when recalling emotionally charged stimuli, such as fear, becomes overactive – this continues even after recovery from depression. Also, susceptibility to stress is increased, and it’s possible that there can be some issues with memory.

There are several neurotransmitters which are responsible for mood, sleep, appetite, as well as stress and pain relief. During depression, these aren’t functioning as they are supposed to.

Imagine a car honks behind you. You jump, your body tenses up, and once you realise it’s a car, you take a deep breath and try to relax. Then you keep walking, and another car honks, startling you again. Then another, and another, you try to stay calm, but eventually, you snap.

That’s what it’s like with negative thoughts when you’re experiencing depression. Every time you have a negative thought it plants itself in your body. You can try and relax and let it go, but another one pops up. You can try to stay calm, but at some point, you’ll spiral.

Your mind might seem like a calm country road, but at times mine is going to feel (and sound) like rush hour in Shanghai.

#2: There is a difference between what I know and what I feel

Don’t you know that you should think positive?

Don’t you know that stress kills?

Don’t you know that it’s not the end of the world?

I do. I definitely do. In fact, I understand all these things a lot better than most people. I’ve been forced to think about them because of the circumstances.

But while I understand intellectually that what I feel isn’t logical, the experience I have is very different.  So, before you give any advice, simply pause for a moment and consider if what you’re saying might be perceived as condescending. Remember, no one likes a backseat driver.

Don’t ask ‘why are you depressed?’ and get frustrated if there is no clear answer. There is almost never a clear answer, sometimes there is no answer, it is incredibly complicated and every case of depression is different.

I know that there are 350 million people that experience depression worldwide according to the World Health Organization – but I’m likely to feel like I’m the only one.

Try to understand that I’m not experiencing the same emotional palette as you. During a depressive episode;

  • Joy is transformed into lifelessness.
  • Challenge feels like overwhelm.
  • Fears and anxieties become paralysing.
  • Sadness is experienced as mourning.

#3: A lot of the time I’m making decisions from a place of tiredness and exhaustion

You know how when you’re tired you make bad decisions or get snappy? Imagine an extreme version of that.

Depression, for the most part, is incredibly exhausting, I’m spending a lot of mental energy simply trying not to succumb to negative thoughts. Even very basic tasks like getting out of bed or preparing a meal can sometimes feel incredibly taxing. Consider what it feels like to be stuck in quicksand, this is how moving through a depressive episode can often feel.

This also means I’m trying to be ‘normal’ in the midst of feeling tired, so if I slip up every now and then, try your best to give me a break.

#4: I probably feel guilty and scared

Guilt is one of the most common emotions that I’m going to experience. Guilt about not being happy when I have so much more than many other people, guilt about being annoying or a burden to my family and friends, and sometimes maybe even guilt for those moments where happiness is experienced.

It’s also quite a frightening experience. You’re literally seeing yourself transform into something that you didn’t think you were. The fallibility of emotions and moods and feelings and your own sense of self are revealed to you first hand. Most people live with the comfort that they can rely on their self-image and narrative – “I’m George, I do X in Y situations, I like Z” – because it’s comfortable. But when your brain chemistry starts playing games, you’re shown that this really isn’t the case.

You start to see behind the veil, that a lot of what you’ve worked for and a lot of what you believe in stand on shaky ground. What you enjoy one day could be taken away the next, and that’s something no one who hasn’t had that kind of experience could understand – nor would you really want them to.

#5: There are many lies that my mind will tell me when I’m in a depressive state

Probably the most practical thing you have to know is that because my brain is in such a state, my mind is going to tell me a bunch of lies.

These lies have little or no basis in reality, but they are dangerous, and when they come up they are going to feel as real as the fingers on my hand.

So, if you hear me saying any of these, please, non-judgmentally acknowledge that while they definitely feel real, they are just tricks of the mind.

I am a burden to others. This is one of the most dangerous lies that come along with depression and has a high correlation with suicidal ideation. Chop it down whenever you see it.

I need to be isolated. The desire to be away from others is related to feeling like a burden. It probably stems from the urge to separate ourselves from the tribe when ill. But we’re not living in 150 people groups, and isolation only serves to deepen the depression and confuse those around us. Depression is self-perpetuating. Imagine someone who had a nut allergy was craving nuts. Isolation causes depression, but depression causes a craving for isolation.

The world doesn’t love or care about me. If I have moments where I only seem to perceive the worst in other people, don’t take it personally. My brain has ramped up its’ negativity bias so it’s very difficult for me to appreciate (and feel) care and love when I receive it. Ironically, it is care and love that can break through and challenge my depressive state, which is why persistence on your part is important.

These feelings will never pass. Memory is state-dependent (see mood-congruent memory bias), which means when I feel down, all I can remember is other times when I felt down and all I can imagine are other times that I will feel down. In this state, I won’t be able to picture a positive future – but I need to begin to construct one in order to get enough momentum to pull myself out of the rut.

I am my past. This is an extension of the point above, but essentially, I’ll be feeling that because I have had depression I will always have it.

I am these negative feelings. Instead of being able to understand that I am feeling depressed, angry or hopeless, I will start to feel that I am depressed, I am angry, or I am hopeless. Again, this is another example of me being frozen in psychological time, everything will feel stagnant.

I don’t have the strength to overcome this. The combination of exhaustion and hopelessness will try to convince me that no matter how many times I have found the strength in the past, this time I won’t be able to find it. It’ll be gone. Simple reminders can be surprisingly effective at dismantling this lie. Journaling is also incredibly effective.

Depression is my friend. This is one of the sneakiest lies that depression will tell me. Particularly if I’ve lived with it for a long time. Depression becomes familiar. If I’ve overcome this on multiple occasions, I’ve probably begun to see my struggle with the illness as a core part of my personality. This means that the prospect of losing depression altogether is almost like losing a part of myself, or a friend. Both you and I need to be acutely aware of this trick sneaking in, as it can result in subtle self-sabotage, such as not committing to the right medical treatment out of a fear that it will ‘change me.’

cafe conversation explaining depression

#6: I can still have good days

“Every day may not be good, but there’s something good in every day.” – Alice Morse Earle

Because I have depression it doesn’t mean that every day is going to be terrible. And when I have a good day it doesn’t mean that everything is cured. I want you to celebrate the good days with me but don’t let either of us get too attached to them.

11 MORE Things People With Depression Want You To Understand (MUST WATCH!)

Letting someone know how they can help

Ask me what you can do to help. This is the most effective but often the most overlooked strategy. Just ask me! I might not know straight away, but an idea may come up in the next day or two or three. It also lays the foundation for me being comfortable enough to ask you when something does come up.

Watch out for and counteract the lies that depression tells me. Those sneaky lies above will come back again and again and again. I will ruminate over and over, and it will be hard to stop. It’s your job to outsource your healthy mind to me so I can know when I’m being tricked, but understand that this requires a lot of trust.

Acknowledge my experience. If I express my train of thought, you can respect how and why I might be thinking that way, but also explain how someone who isn’t currently depressed may think about it.

Don’t be scared to apologize. Don’t be afraid to say sorry if you feel you’ve said the wrong thing. Let me know that you’re not a clinical psychologist and that you’re trying your best to try and understand the situation, you’re only human and you make mistakes too.

Be patient. Patience is important because as much as I want to permanently overcome depression, my brain may have structural and biochemical differences which means even if I overcome it this time, I’ll probably experience it again. 50% of those who experience one episode will have another, whilst 80% of those who have two episodes will have a third.

How To Explain Depression to a Child

Explaining depression to a child is a challenge because it requires carefully considering their perspective. Children are often smarter than we give them credit for, but they do have limited, somewhat naive world-views, so introducing something as serious as depression can be difficult. The last thing you want to do is create unnecessary anxiety for them.

Here are some tips:

Speak to them on their level. Kids may not have the same emotional vocabulary as you. To help them understand it’s useful to use analogies and examples that are relevant to their world. Think about where they may have been exposed to sadness, maybe in cartoons or movies, at school, or through friends.

Be specific. When faced with uncertainty children will pick up on emotional cues from adults. Because you might be feeling down, the child may interpret the situation as negative or wrong and react with fear. Try to be clear about what is going on and what that means for them and most importantly, normalise it. Let them know this is something people go through and that’s ok.

Reassure them. After having a somewhat serious conversation with a child, they may be a little confused and scared. Calm them down and let them know that everything is going to be ok, some things might just be changing, as they always do.

How To Explain Depression to Your Partner

When people are in a relationship they tend to become intertwined. The most common reaction to depression in one partner is the other partner assuming they’ve done something wrong or that they’re deficient in some way. It’s important to clear the air and minimise anxieties so you can work as a team and not two anxious individuals.

Here are some tips:

Make them know it’s not about them. Because this is likely their first anxiety, it is the most important thing to do. Explain why depression happens and how it can be outside of either partner’s control.

Be clear about both of your needs. Relationships evolve and change with the people in them. To make sure the emotional adjustments don’t bring any unnecessary friction, be clear about how your emotions may be changing during this time, how this may impact your needs and theirs.

Show appreciation. Lastly, it’s important to show how much you care about your partner. Although it’s difficult for you at this time, it’s also difficult for them, and it’s important that you show them that you see that.

How To Explain Depression to Parents

Like children and partners, many parents are highly emotionally invested in how we feel. That’s why the process of describing depression to them also needs a little bit of extra consideration.

Here are some tips:

Let them know it’s not their fault. Some parents may look at the emotions of their children as their responsibility, so your depression may be an interpretation by them as a failure on their part. Be clear about the multitude of factors that may you to be dissatisfied with your life.

Try to manage their anxieties. When something is wrong that’s out of their control, this might cause a sense of panic, particularly in overprotective parents. Address their worries and fears directly and talk about any worst-case scenarios they may have running through their head.

Give them clear instructions. Tell them exactly what they can do to help you. This might just be being available to listen to your struggles or it could mean the financial help to pay for a therapist or medication.

Published by

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author, psychotherapist and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He holds an MSc. in Applied Neuroscience from King's College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Queensland.

19 thoughts on “How to Explain Depression to Someone who Doesn’t Understand”

  1. Thank you for this important post. As I struggle to watch a family member deal with depression your post gives me some tools to cope and perhaps help her. Thank you.

  2. Powerful post and much appreciated.

    I’m quite vocal about depression issues and I believe that meditation has aided me in being able to speak about it.

    One issue that I think makes it so hard for people to be open about it is because depression feels so personal. This is part of the cancer that needs freeing first so that one of the greatest cures can occur:

    There’s nothing personal about depression anymore than there’s anything personal about a muffler problem on a Mustang.

    At least, I think that realization has helped me speak more openly about it. There’s nothing unique or special about my experience with it, so nothing to protect or hide.

    Because I think the most insidious point you raise is perhaps the most important: That depression becomes more than familiar. It becomes a kind of friend. It’s like the family member or loved one with an addiction who you still love, even though they’re eating you alive.

    But all of that is ego-identification and in some ways trying to out-Vampire the ultimate Vampire …

    Another issue I think is that too few literary types write about it. They can explain it in both metaphors and plain language in useful ways. William Styron’s Darkness Visible is helpful – and a good demonstration of how writing itself can possible be curative, even if never a cure.

    Although not about depression, another book I would recommend looking at (with a high note of caution) is David Benatar’s Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

    I find it paradoxically one of the most positive books in the world because, unlike a lot of gurus who wax messianic, he gives a stable, surely inarguable mathematical proof that essentially suggests that individual suffering is both irrelevant in the wider scheme of things and one of the worst ethical crimes. When you have the portrait of your suffering against the vast museum backdrop of all the suffering that has existed and all the suffering yet to come … it’s less easy to give your own pains and frustrations more than they are due.

    By the same token, many depressions belong to the brain, can come from lesions beyond the influence of behavior and well-intentioned thinking and for these things we probably owe a debt of silent acceptance. But for those of us who can do something, this post is a great reminder of what can be done. And so those of us who can, should.

  3. Pingback: What are the Health Benefits of Deep Breathing? - Air In Air Out
  4. See, imagine going through all that with a cultural background, where unfortunately, it is not understood and seen as exaggerated sadness or plain bs.
    I don’t know what to do..

    P.s. your post describes depression so eloquently.. thank you

    1. Your message really resonated with me. Currently in the same situation. This piece described exactly how I feel and thinking about sharing it with my family seems and then understanding seems insurmountable.

  5. This article is so perfect. I was looking for a few things to send to someone to help them better understand what my depression is like and your article is the best Ive come across so far. It’s so hard to explain that I’m not just sad, I can’t snap out of it and it’s not a weakness or character flaw, it’s my brain. Thanks

  6. This article was extremely helpful when talking to my dad about how o better understand my depression. Thank you.

  7. I read this article, and I immediately thought that sending this to somebody would be an okay way to tell them that I’m depressed. I just as immediately freaked out, and now I feel anxious and guilty and… basically this entire article. What should I do?

    1. Hey there,

      I think that the fact that you’re thinking about sharing your experience is a good thing. I don’t know your situation personally, but if the person you want to share it with is someone that you love and trust, then I think you could simply say that you’ve been feeling a certain way and you don’t know how to express it, but this article does a pretty good job. Tell them that it’s important to you that talk about your experience sometime and let them know you’re telling them this because you trust them. Perfectly fine to feel anxious and guilty, but remember that you don’t need to let those emotions dictate your decision to reach out for help.

      Good luck! 🙂

    2. Me too! I came looking for a way to describe my depression to my boyfriend but I’m scared to send this to him. I’m way overthinking how he will react when he reads it.

  8. I have been trying to deal with anxiety and depression for the last 10 years plus which heightened even more after the suicide of my x husband which was whom I was in a relationship with and had children with when these extreme feelings began. I have always been a worrier and over analytical prior to that but in my younger years I was always way more free spirited and able to cope. Now that I’m a working single mother, I cope, but I’m not me, the real me. I need to seek help or learn coping strategies at this point.

    1. Hi Andrea,

      Sorry to hear about your struggles, though you should be proud of having been able to deal with them for 10 years and still be looking to improve your situation! I would definitely recommend you get help to learn coping strategies. Try not to think of it as a permanent thing but something that will help you gains the skills to manage. Good luck!

  9. I’m desperately tried to get my partner to understand when I’m deeply depressed and stressed that I only have enough (barely) energy to survive, to keep going, to dig myself out of the hole of depression.

    He says he doesn’t like the way I talk to him sometimes, like my tone. I know this to be true at times, but it’s not meant nor intentional but I ask him to please be compassionate, give me some time and space.

    But we’re fighting more and more. I wish he had empathy and more understanding of how my depression changes me, usually for a few days at a time.

    I know I could do better but I barely have enough energy to keep myself going.

    Am I asking too much of him??!

  10. It would be beneficial if while trying to share this with my family members it didn’t come up with a free session. They’re just going to click off of it and not read it

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