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, for example. Depression and anxiety too can be difficult both for the person experiencing such difficulties, as well as for those close to us.
Depression and anxiety can find their ‘way in’ when we feel isolated or disconnected from others. Being ‘friends’ with people for the wrong reasons however, or feeling pressured into acting differently in order to fit in to a friendship group, does not provide the kind of support that can support us either.
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. It is important to retain the balance between existing important relationships and connecting with others, by:
- giving yourself time to meet a wide range of people
- getting to know people in a bit more depth
- making conscious choices about who you really get on with
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 people and situations around us. It may be we feel that people are not interested in us, or are actively rejecting us, whereas how we feel about ourselves might be influencing how we experience the actions of others.
Communicate using ‘I-statements’: “I feel worried that you’re getting fed up with me being so miserable all the time”, rather than “You must be so fed up with me.”
I-statements are especially useful in tense situations, because they can’t be disputed or debated, whereas you-statements often feel like accusations. State clearly what you would like from the other person: “I want you to tell me when you are too busy, or are feeling overwhelmed with listening to me. I will feel more able to call on you when I need to if I know you will set clear limits.”
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 out 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 also shows the person that you are really listening.
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 (ie. yes/no or factual) questions: “What’s going on for you?” rather than “Are you fed up with me?”
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 intimacy also creates vulnerability to deep hurt – from all the courage required for negotiating the start of a relationship, through the myriad 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 about your thoughts about sex, or your counsellor.
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 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.