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Explaining depression isn’t easy. The condition can rob you of the desire to connect with others and leave you searching for words to describe the emptiness inside.

This article offers simple strategies that may help you explain what you’re going through to people who may not have been there themselves. It also offers ideas for getting support in the midst of depression.

David Rosmarin, PhD, ABPP, founder of the Center for Anxiety and associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, has worked with individuals and families affected by depression and other mental health conditions. His advice is that you don’t have to be the one explaining your depression to other people after all.

You are the expert on your own feelings. No one, not even your therapist, knows more about your experience with depression than you do. But if the job of explaining your symptoms and answering questions feels like a burden, you can ask for help. Health professionals are trained and experienced in educating family members.

“The person with depression is not usually the best person to have to explain it,” Dr. Rosmarin says. “It’s hard enough to explain depression when you’re firing on all cylinders. If you’re not, you might prefer to offer your relatives a chance to speak to someone on your clinical team.”

In fact, there is good evidence that when family members are educated about depression as part of treatment, there’s less mystery about the illness, less guilt, and more understanding and support.

The emotional depths of depression can be hard to convey to people who have not experienced them. It’s okay simply to observe your thoughts and feelings and describe them as best you can.

“Try to explain without becoming angry, judgmental, or aggressive,” Rosmarin advises. If your feelings are too overwhelming to share, use printed materials or online teaching tools from such organizations as the American Psychiatric Association or the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Statistics and infographics might also be useful.

You can also turn to videos online in which people explain what it feels like to experience depression. If you find one that rings true for you, you can share it with the people in your circle.

Some people find it helpful to practice difficult conversations before engaging with family members. If you think role playing might help you clarify your feelings, prepare yourself, or build your confidence, Rosmarin recommends practicing with a professional rather than a friend.

Before you enter a conversation with someone about the way depression feels, think about what you want the conversation to accomplish. Is there something concrete you want others to do or not do? Do you need a particular kind of support? Identifying your goals in advance can help you create reasonable expectations.

Rosmarin suggests trying the “DEAR MAN” strategies developed in dialectical behavior therapy. Each letter of the phrase “DEAR MAN” represents a communication technique:

  • Describe. Describe the situation factually, without emotion or judgment.
  • Express. Use self-focused “I feel” statements to express your feelings about the situation.
  • Assert. Ask for what you want or need in a simple, straightforward way.
  • Reinforce. Reinforce the importance of the relationship, reminding the other person how valuable they are to you.
  • Be mindful. Try to stay in the present moment, without bringing up the past or worrying about the future.
  • Appear confident. Use your posture, tone of voice, and facial expressions to communicate self-respect (even if you feel anxious).
  • Negotiate. If what you need isn’t possible, work with the other person to find an alternative that might work.

It may not be necessary to explain depression to young children, Rosmarin says. They may not be aware of changes in your mood or behavior. Older children and teens, on the other hand, may have questions.

How much explaining is appropriate will probably depend on how mature your child is. If you are co-parenting, your partner may be the best person to explain that you’re having a hard time. If you are the sole parent, it’s okay to say, “I want to be there for you more than I am able to right now. It’s not because of you.”

The important message to convey is that your struggles are not your child’s fault.

“It’s important to keep your expectations in check,” Rosmarin says. “Not everyone has to understand depression. Think about what it’s going to be like if they don’t.”

He suggests these strategies for coping when mutual understanding doesn’t happen right away:

  • Know who your allies are.
  • Create new allies if you need more support.
  • Reach out to someone who has been through it before.

If understanding and support are in short supply from those closest to you, consider exploring resources in your faith community or in a support group.

“If it doesn’t go well at first, don’t give up on trying to explain,” Rosmarin says. “When you talk about depression and it doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped, it can create some distance between you and the people you care about. When people feel misunderstood, it can exacerbate depression symptoms.”

Discussions like these can take time, and awareness can grow gradually. If you can be patient with yourself and others, your communication may be better in the long run.

Finding help for depression

If you need help coping with depression, a lifeline may be the best option:

For help finding a therapist or support group, consider one of these search tools:

If you think you might need more than therapy, explore this resource guide.

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As you’re thinking about how depression feels to you, ask yourself:

  • How does depression affect my body and how I feel physically?
  • How does depression affect my thoughts?
  • How does depression affect my ability to concentrate and remember?
  • How does depression affect my relationships?
  • How does depression affect my sense of spirituality and connectedness?

Depression affects people differently. Knowing your own symptoms can help you explain them to people who care about you. It can also help you explain them to your doctor and your healthcare team as you work together on a treatment plan.

You don’t necessarily need words to explain depression. People have been using art, music, dance, photography, movies, spoken poetry, and other means to capture the experience for centuries.

You may be a professional artist. Or you may be a novice looking for a way to express your own feelings. Either way, explaining depression creatively isn’t just a communication strategy. Studies show it can actually improve your level of depression.

Stigma. In some families, cultures, schools, and communities, people may be less likely to talk about mental health issues because they worry about disapproval. If you’re in an environment where mental health issues are stigmatized, you may feel less safe sharing your experiences.

Exhaustion. Feeling tired, worn down, and wrung out are common symptoms of depression. If you are exhausted, you might not have the energy to tackle the task of explaining to others how you feel.

Isolation. Depression often makes people want to withdraw. If you’re struggling to connect with and confide in other people, it can make depression symptoms worse. It’s a cycle.

Cognitive effects. Depression makes it harder to think clearly. In one 2019 study, people with depression said they felt scattered, as if they had brain fog. Some said depression led to communication problems.

Individual differences. If you’re less comfortable talking about your feelings, opening up about depression might feel unnatural for you. Experts at the National Institutes of Mental Health suggest that gender can also play a role in how comfortable you are talking about depression.

Explaining depression can be a challenge. Your symptoms may not look like everyone else’s. And you may or may not feel comfortable sharing your feelings with the people around you.

If you’re working with a therapist or psychiatrist, you can ask for help educating the people in your life. If you are co-parenting, it may be helpful for your partner to explain to your children. Or you can use educational materials from trusted sources.

Before you have a conversation about depression, think about your goals and expectations. You may also want to think about how you’ll take care of yourself if the conversation doesn’t go as planned.

Your experience with depression is valid and unique. How you explain it — with words, art, or some other form of expression — is a matter of personal choice.