How To Explain Depression and Anxiety to Someone Who Doesn’t Have It

The Frustration of Trying to Explain Depression and Anxiety

17 million adults in the United States alone have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Awareness is improving, but the dialogue has a long way to go. If you are one of the many struggling in silence, or just want some tips on how to explain depression to someone who doesn’t have it, here are some tips from Steps Recovery Center of Utah.

What Is Depression?

Depression, also known as major depressive disorder or clinical depression, goes beyond sadness to a state of prolonged despondency and seemingly futile helplessness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition, more commonly known as DSM-5 which is the guideline published by the American Psychiatric Association, explains that a diagnosis of depression requires the experience of five (5) or more symptoms in the same 2-week period.

Symptoms are outlined as:

  • Depressed mood for the majority of the day
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Significant weight change/change in appetite
  • The decline of the thought process
  • Lethargy/flagging physical activity
  • Constant fatigue
  • Lack of concentration/Indecisiveness
  • Suicidal ideation

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The Biology of Depression

While depression is primarily viewed as an emotional disorder, there is a physical component that may help to explain depression to someone who doesn’t have it. During an episode, the brain’s frontal lobe and hippocampus physically shrink. Two of the essential roles of these areas are memory and impulse control, so it makes it difficult to regulate emotions when this occurs.

During this time, the amygdala also becomes overstimulated, increasing the reaction to stress and heightening fears.

These brain activities during a major depressive episode can permanently change the brain, potentially intensifying future episodes, and making them more likely to recur.

What Is Anxiety?

Almost everyone has some experience with anxiety: a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

Anxiety becomes a mental health disorder when it becomes an irrational and constant fear or worries, and disrupts daily life. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 18% of adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder.

Emotional symptoms include:

  • Feeling of dread
  • Constantly fearing the worst
  • Irrational fear
  • Extreme tension
  • Jumpiness
  • Restlessness

Anxiety & Depression: The Perfect Storm

Analogies are a great way to describe the seemingly indescribable. One example that may help explain depression and anxiety to someone is to view them as the development of a hurricane. After all, they have their own tropical depression phase before they become a destructive storm.

Depression develops like an Atlantic system coming out of Africa. Anxiety heightens depression like the warm waters of the ocean and the Caribbean Sea, strengthening a disturbance. Your feelings of hopelessness cause anxiety and depression to build.

We are unable to create wind shears that can weaken a storm, and similarly, we are unable to turn off a depressive episode. We can see the storm, we know what it needs, we can logically think about how to stop it, but it cannot be done.

And just like a hurricane, a depressive episode must be allowed to run its course. Sometimes it will dissipate after a few days in the middle of nowhere, other times it will erupt into chaos and destruction, but there’s always sun at the end of the storm.

Create Relatable Descriptions

The hurricane analogy may not work for everyone, so try to come up with descriptors they can relate to. A depressive episode can be like your car sliding down a slippery slope in the middle of winter; all you can do is let go of the wheel and go along for the ride. Try to think of something in their life that can be compared to how you feel when fighting through a depressive episode.

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Explain How You Deal With It

It can be difficult to know how to explain depression to someone who doesn’t have it because sometimes it seems as if they “don’t care” because they become distant. Many times that is because they do not know what to do, and probably feel nearly as helpless as you.

Equally as important as sharing how you feel is what you do to deal with it. Explain your need for quiet or solitude or space or increased sleep. Better understanding on their part may lead to less stress on your part.

Provide Tips On How They Can Help

Many loved ones also fear they will do something wrong, so they do nothing instead. Tell them what might help, while also explaining that it won’t “fix it,” it will just lighten the load for a time. Also stress that it is not anything they did or did not do that has put you in this state. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to when and why it occurs.

What are some things that can help you find a little peace through the chaotic storm of depression? Perhaps they can:

  • Fix your favorite meal
  • Take the kids out for the day
  • Simply give you peace and quiet
  • Rub your feet/back/head – affection is healing
  • Just be near

One of the best descriptors of the need during a bout of major depression was penned by Maisy Adams, in her “Letter To My Husband When I Don’t Have the Words To Explain My Anxiety,” when she shared that “Today, I’m going to need you to love me a little louder.”

More Help Is Available

Whether you are the depressive struggling to figure out how to explain depression and anxiety to someone, you want help for your depression, or you want more information on how to help a loved one fighting this same battle, don’t be afraid to reach out and get the help you need. Depression isn’t something to take lightly and should be addressed with love and compassion 


Steps Recovery Center realizes the importance of maintaining a safe and effective environment for our clients and staff. As such, we are actively following all Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines. The additional measures we take at Steps Recovery Centers include implementing the following protocols: admissions screening and testing, coronavirus infection control plans, providing education to clients and staff, and daily, effective screening of all employees and clients for Coronavirus symptoms. To ensure we protect and promote the health and wellbeing of our staff and clients, we will continue to monitor any developing updates to COVID-19, including exposure statistics in the community and guidelines provided by the Utah Department of Public Health.