How to Talk About Your Anxiety and Depression

(In a Way That Actually Helps You)

by Rachel Friedlander | October 20 2022

Woman talking to therapist

There’s a whole side of TikTok that’s always popping up in my feed—it’s expressly devoted to laughing about the debilitating anxiety and depression so many of us experience daily while simply trying to function as human adults. I watch the one-person skits, noncommittal dances, and monologues soundtracked by 90s pop remixes, and I think, I’m glad we’re talking about these issues. But is this helping?

Because we sure need the help. In the United States, anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting 40 million adults annually.1 And (because apparently we haven’t suffered enough) some studies have shown that depression can disproportionately affect some Jewish people.2

Why We Should Speak Up

As cathartic as expressing ourselves creatively can be—whether that be in TikToks or journaling, yoga or jogging—talking directly to another human can be even more helpful. Community is one of the best assets we have as Jewish people, especially in working towards mental health.

In the silence, the lies we’re telling ourselves get louder.

Isolation, though appealing when we’re in a dark place, can actually serve to compound our crises. In the silence, the lies we’re telling ourselves get louder, our perspectives warp, and we can develop some unhealthy habits. The journey towards health urges us to reach out to someone outside of ourselves, to look to our community for healing, accountability, and comfort. It’s ingrained in the Tanakh, exemplified by the fact that we hear in detail about the inner turmoil of so many of our forefathers/mothers. They didn’t shy away from speaking up about their struggles, whether to others or directly to God.

Knowing how to utilize that community in a way that’s truly helpful is where things can get tricky. Talking about our anxiety, depression, or other mental disorders can be daunting to broach and difficult to articulate—and we never know if it will be received well.

Five Ways to Share About Mental Health within Community

In my own journey toward mental health, I’ve found that there’s only one variable I could control: myself. Though I can’t ensure a conversation will be fruitful, I’ve found the following to be helpful guiding principles in having productive conversations about mental health:

  1. Identify safe people. Not all people are the right people to talk to about sensitive issues. Who in your community has proven themselves to be trustworthy? Who seems wise and like they have seen some things in their life (and navigated it well)? Do you have a rapport with them? If not, try to build one, starting with smaller things first. Building relationships with understanding, reliable, and caring people will create an ongoing network of support—and we could all use more of that in our lives.
  2. Plan ahead. Though worthwhile, conversations about anxiety and depression can be draining. Don’t broach the topic right before an important event or right before bed (sleeping qualifies as an important event). Before you have a difficult conversation, arrange an activity for yourself to do afterwards that will refill you a bit: rewatch your favorite movie, order in a bougie dinner, or go for a run (if you’re that kind of person).
  3. Tell them what you need (and what you don’t). Even the most well-intentioned of people can be clueless about how to respond to these issues. Start by prefacing what you share with an expectation of what you’re looking for, like, “I’ve been going through a hard time and could just use a listening ear,” or “I’ve been having a hard time seeing things in the right light. I could use some reminders of truth/words of affirmation.” If someone says something unhelpful, gently redirect them towards what would be more helpful.
  4. Share only what you want to. Just because you choose to open up to someone doesn’t mean you have to unload it all at once, or even all to one person. It can be helpful to start with a smaller piece of the story. Saying something like, “I’ve been having a hard time sleeping lately—I think I’ve been anxious. Have you ever dealt with that?” can be a softer way to start a conversation than divulging your entire life story in graphic detail. This allows you to develop a communications dynamic with one another with lower stakes. Stay present with yourself and check in with your comfort level as you decide what you’d like to say.
  5. Don’t be discouraged if (when) others say the wrong thing. In all likelihood, the person with whom you’re speaking won’t have all the right words. In fact, some things they say could be unhelpful or even hurtful. Absorbing what is useful and leaving the rest behind is a skill that takes time to develop, but is key in the imperfect reality of our humanity. And the more we develop a shared language and understanding of what words are helpful and unhelpful, the better these conversations can be.

Talking About Mental Health Is Our Tradition

King David laid the groundwork. He spoke openly and honestly with God about what he was experiencing—the Psalms almost read like the transcript of a therapy session. It’s likely that he, too, suffered from depression and anxiety. In his fortieth Psalm, he lamented, “My heart fails within me,” and again in the forty-third Psalm, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?”

We were never meant to do this thing called ‘life’ alone.

He wasn’t afraid to speak frankly about his issues, and we can boldly follow in step with that tradition. Conversations about mental health don’t bring about instantaneous resolutions. But acknowledging the pain of our experiences to someone else can allow us to make room for the rest of the truth. We were never meant to do this thing called “life” alone. It’s comforting to know that God is always available and willing to be our sounding board, our therapist, and our perspective-refresher. We just have to be willing to speak up.

Endnotes

1. “Facts & Statistics,” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, n.d., accessed September 3, 2020, https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics.

2. Levav et al., “Vulnerability of Jews to affective disorders,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, 1997, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9210744/.

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