Every person who has suffered from depression recognizes the difficulty in explaining it to friends and family. Many people simply seem to struggle to understand depression. They question why you are feeling depressed, as if there is a convenient trigger you can pinpoint. They don’t know why you can’t just “snap out of it.”
These people are not practicing willful ignorance. On the contrary, many of them want to understand depression. But they assume that depression is just another emotion that they have experienced, rather than an actual mental illness.
Here are some of the reasons people struggle to understand depression.
Depression is not an emotion
From the outside, depression looks like an emotion, or a number of emotions. People see their loved ones crying or panicking or unable to get out of bed. They connect this to the familiar experience of sadness, anxiety, or even despondency.
However, depression is not an emotion. It is not even a range of emotions. Depression is a mental state that is qualitatively different from what is considered healthy. Someone suffering with depression may feel sad, but that is a symptom of the illness and not the illness itself.
Depression more commonly presents as a numbness, but even this description is difficult to understand. Someone who has not experienced the numbness of depression may wonder what is so bad about not feeling.
The reality is that the pain of depression is separate from emotional pain. And as such, you don’t fully know what it is until you experience.
Depression is physical
Another reason people struggle to understand depression is that it is not only a mental illness. It is, in fact, very physical. Its physicality is another factor that is very difficult to explain. It often presents as agitation or restlessness.
Think of the experience of hitting your funny bone against the edge of a table. It is not painful but is uncomfortable in a way that is really difficult to pinpoint. Even though you have experienced, chances are you cannot really recall just how it feels, except as a kind of static.
The physical pain of depression is far more difficult to comprehend. Someone who has recovered from depression will even have a tough time pinpointing it, although part of the reason is that they know they never want to feel that way ever again.
Depression warps your thinking… rationally
Depression is hard to understand because it warps a person’s thinking in a way that may seem incomprehensible to someone who is thinking “normally.” But this does not necessarily mean a depressed person is thinking irrationally.
It might be easier to understand depression as focusing a person’s thinking. For example, they may become obsessed with the concept of death. A depressed person may tell you that everyone dies, that life is meaningless, and that no one can ever truly know another person’s experience.
You might hear these statements and agree with all of them. But you are hearing them within a context of a full range of emotions. You can manage the sadness inherent in human experience because it is not all you think about. Depression takes very specific rational thoughts and turns them into the be-all-and-end-all.
This is why trying to argue a depressed person out of these thoughts is simply not possible. While their thinking is unhealthy and not necessarily sound, it is not irrational.
How to understand depression
There is no real way to fully understand depression from the outside, but you can learn to understand it better. Most depressed people won’t have the energy or motivation to explain it to you, and you should not expect that from them. However, there is plenty of content out there that you can access yourself.
The following books provide excellent descriptions of depression:
Darkness Visible by William Styron
The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath