All sorts of relationships will be important while we are at university or college. Friendships, contact with family and also an intimate relationship with a partner can be profoundly important in helping us cope with depression and anxiety, as well as a host of other day-to-day demands.
Friends and Family
When we begin our studies, or during the course of our studies, different pressures at different times can impact on our relationships with others – friends, family, partners and colleagues, and so on. Depression and anxiety can be difficult both for the person experiencing such difficulties, as well as for those helping to support them.
Depression and anxiety can find their ‘way in’ when we feel isolated or disconnected from others. However, being ‘friends’ with people for the wrong reasons, or feeling pressured into acting differently in order to fit into a friendship group, does not provide the right kind of support either.
Sometimes the thought of having interactions with other people can just feel too much. Ironically, however, the times when we most need other people’s support is often when we feel most inclined to avoid these people and isolate ourselves, again feeding yet another vicious cycle of depression:
Many who come to university or college also have ongoing caring responsibilities, such as children, older relatives or other close friends or family with particular needs. Balancing our caring role with commencing a new course, as well as meeting lots of new people, can feel both exciting and overwhelming. It is important that we take our time to settle into a new routine.
Most people who begin their studies have a number of relationships already in place, as well as wanting to make contact with new people around them. These might be people in halls (if we are in shared accommodation) or other people on our course. Try not to succumb to all-or-nothing thinking, though – people continue to make friends and get to know people throughout university, and even into later life as well.
It is important to retain the balance between existing important relationships and connecting with others, by:
If you take your time, then university can be the ideal place to break free from the peer pressures common in adolescence, and to build solid adult friendships for life.
Honest communication in relationships is an extension of assertive communication and, arguably, is at the core of all trusting relationships. You need to be practised at knowing what you are feeling and what you need, in order to communicate it clearly and effectively. It is also important to remember that when we struggle with depression and anxiety, we can become more sensitive to the people and situations around us. We may misinterpret or assume the worst in the ways people treat us, become easily irritated by their actions in ways that would not usually cause a problem, or unknowingly change the way we respond to other people.
‘I’ statements are especially useful in tense situations, because they can’t be disputed or debated, whereas ‘you’ statements can often feel like accusations. State clearly what you would like from the other person:
Be ready both to hear and to use the word “no”, and to negotiate and compromise. Challenge any all-or-nothing thinking.
People who care about you may also find it very difficult to understand what you are feeling and why – especially when it is difficult for you to understand it yourself. A few simple, yet very effective, relationship skills can make all the difference in protecting your friendships and relationships from some of the damage caused by depression.
It can be difficult to listen properly to what is going on for others when you are feeling low yourself. However, making the effort to hear the other person’s point of view is vital to maintaining good relationships.
Truly listening to what someone else has to say means suspending your own views and opinions temporarily. Check whether you have properly understood by paraphrasing:
“So what you’re saying is you’re worried about me and you want me to go and see someone about it?”
This shows the person that you are really listening, and care enough to make sure you’ve got it right.
Don’t copy word for word, but stick as closely as you can to their meaning as you have understood it. This seems strange at first, but is a surprisingly effective communication tool.
Be aware of what is unspoken as well as what is spoken:
“You’re saying that you’re all right with supporting me, but you’re also looking quite tired and stressed.”
Ask open rather than closed ‘yes or no’ questions:
Summarise what the other person has said before you respond. If the other person feels like you have been open to hearing their point of view, they are more likely to be open to hearing yours too.
Student life provides a convenient setting for meeting like-minded people and forming intimate relationships. Our human need for closeness offers a very powerful source of happiness, and a happy partnership can be one of the best protections from depression.
At the same time, however, intimacy also creates vulnerability to deep hurt – from all the courage required for negotiating the start of a relationship, through the myriad of potential hurts during a relationship, to the potentially deep loss experienced when a relationship ends. Setbacks in relationships can easily shake confidence, disrupt support networks and provide fodder for depressed thinking habits. Beginning to study, whether that be locally or in another part of the country, can put enormous pressure on existing relationships to cope with the change that is taking place.
The most important tip for successful negotiation of intimate relationships is to maintain your own sense of autonomy and identity separate from the relationship and to practise clear, assertive communication.
However, despite the challenges that inevitably come with intimate relationships, the benefits and positives often far outweigh these. Relationships can be a place where you can be honest about how you are really feeling. However, don’t expect your partner to have the answers, or to know the right thing to say some (or all) of the time. We can often look towards our partners as pseudo-therapists, which they are not. There is still a place for seeking out professional help, where you can talk about your thoughts and feelings in confidence, and without having to ‘look after’ your therapist. Your partner however, can be powerfully supportive by:
- Being there
- Being honest
- Being willing to simply listen, without judgment
- To help you think about what options you have, including seeking further support.
Sexual closeness is important in intimate relationships. However, it is not uncommon for people to experience a loss of sex drive (libido) when they feel depressed or anxious, or perhaps as a consequence of taking medication. If you are taking medication, then don’t be embarrassed about talking to your GP about any changes you notice in your sex drive, or sexual arousal, for example. Likewise, be confident in talking to your partner or counsellor about your thoughts on sex.
Depression and anxiety can change, temporarily, men and women’s experience of sex in very similar ways, but with different ‘symptoms’. Both men and women can experience a loss of sex drive, or arousal. For a woman, this might include a difficulty in experiencing orgasm. For men, this might include a difficulty in getting or maintaining an erection during sex, or premature or delayed ejaculation. Any noticeable physical changes should be discussed with your GP. But, once you have been given the physical ‘all clear’, be confident in talking to a professional, such as a counsellor, about your experience so that you don’t compound your problems through embarrassment or shame. Sexual problems are not uncommon when depression and/or anxiety are in the mix.
Grief experienced as a result of a loss or bereavement is a significant risk factor for depression and anxiety. The natural grieving process includes many of the states and feelings also found in depression and anxiety, and can therefore combine with other factors to reinforce our difficult feelings. If you do experience a bereavement or other loss, such as a pregnancy termination or the end of a relationship, then protect yourself from depression and anxiety by making good use of your support networks and paying extra attention to self-care.
Good friendships and relationships require the investment of both energy and trust; depression and anxiety can deplete the supply of both of these.