Due in no small part to the pandemic, increasingly high numbers of people have reported feeling overwhelmed or burned out these days, and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression are on the rise. These struggles can take a toll on our relationships with partners, colleagues, family members and even friends.
“Friendships, especially close or best friendships, take time and energy,” sociologist and friendship expert Jan Yager told HuffPost. “It is of course time well spent, but if someone is struggling with her own mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, or just feeling burned out and overwhelmed by work, family, or romantic relationships or issues, friendship may have to temporarily take a back burner.”
Even if we theoretically want to maintain our friendships, we may be grappling with with a lack of energy or desire to engage with other people or even leave the house.
“It is quite common for people to become stuck in a cycle of feeling sad and irritable and therefore lacking the energy to socialize with others, and as a result further isolating themselves,” said licensed marriage and family therapist Becky Stuempfig. “It is very common for people to begin avoiding their friends when they feel their depression and anxiety flare up. Many people avoid these friendships for such long stretches that it becomes difficult to reengage and oftentimes, the friendship is sadly lost, isolation increases and the cycle continues.”
That isolation can worsen those mental struggles and further erode self-confidence. And although there’s been societal progress in destigmatizing mental health issues, many people still feel afraid of being judged by their friends.
“People tend to become stuck in negative self-talk and may decide they are not worthy of caring friendships,” Stuempfig said. “They may start thinking, ‘I don’t deserve someone who cares about me,’ or, ‘I don’t want to burden my friends with my issues,’ or, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why am I so broken and everyone else seems so together?’ These negative thoughts leave people feeling incapable of maintaining friendships and less likely to reach out to others.”
Even when you feel burned out and helpless, the reality is that you do have control and agency when it comes to friendships.
So how can people maintain these relationships when they’re feeling overwhelmed or struggling with their mental health? Below, Stuempfig, Yager and other experts share their advice.
Be open about your struggles.
“When you struggle with mental health issues, it’s often difficult to be open with others ― even people you would normally trust ― about what’s going on in your life,” said Glenda Shaw, author of “Better You, Better Friends.” “You may have even tried to hide your anxiety or mental health struggles from your friends. But at some point and probably before you feel completely comfortable doing this, it’s important to talk about your depression or your fears with friends.”
Let your loved ones know what’s going on with you, especially if it’s started to affect your friendship by causing you to withdraw.
“If you’re going though a bout of depression or just feeling overwhelmed, let your friends know, so that they don’t mistake your absence for something else or insert their own interpretation of why you pulled away or haven’t been in contact,” said Danielle Bayard Jackson, a friendship coach and host of the “Friend Forward” podcast. “Left to their own devices without any kind of explanation, they might be making meaning of things in a way that isn’t accurate.”
You don’t have to go into the nitty-gritty details of your mental health struggles if you don’t want to. But let your friends know you’re having a problem so that they don’t take your withdrawal personally or think it’s a reflection of your friendship.
“One friend who periodically stopped responding to my phone calls finally told me she had clinical depression,” Shaw recalled. “She thought I knew this, that I’d figured it out. We’d known each other for a decade, and she had gone into her disappearing act many times. But I didn’t know she was depressed. I thought she was just unreliable.”
Once Shaw knew what was happening, she was able to check in with her friend and let her know she was thinking of her in times of distance. There was no negative judgment from Shaw and no need for further explanation or feelings of guilt for her friend.
“It’s just so much better all the way around when we’re open with each other and more patient with each other, kinder to each other,” she explained. “It’s a matter of listening to each other and learning more about each other. Then we go through these life issues together, and we’re able to form stronger, more enduring bonds with each other.”
Try to help them understand what you’re going through.
If you’re comfortable talking about your struggles, it can be helpful to describe exactly how you’re feeling to your friends. This might make them feel better equipped to offer support.
“Sit down face to face, and explain in terms so others can understand what your brain and body go through in certain situations,” advised Sanam Hafeez, a New York-based neuropsychologist. “Perhaps, give examples of a time you participated in something with them and how you were feeling when you did, while you were hiding your feelings from them.”
If you suffer from panic attacks, describe what they feel like and what your triggers are. If you’re dealing with depression, explain the lows that you experience and how hard it can be to switch to “happy” mode, even when you’re doing something that should bring joy.
“If you are uncomfortable talking about your problem, you might even share a pamphlet, website or other literature with your friend that describes it,” suggested clinical psychologist and friendship expert Irene S. Levine.
Ask for judgment-free support.
“One of the most powerful antidotes for depression and anxiety is increasing social support,” said Stuempfig.
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and ask your friends for support during difficult times. Vulnerability makes relationships stronger and more authentic, as both parties acknowledge that it’s OK to not be OK and gain comfort from knowing they aren’t the only ones who struggle.
“An expression that sums it up is, ‘Please be patient with me.’ If you want to, tell your friends that you have to focus on your mental health issues right now, so you hope they don’t feel your friendship is being abandoned or ignored,” said Yager, who is also the author of “Friendgevity: Making and Keeping the Friends Who Enhance and Even Extend Your Life.”
Make it clear that you need support and not judgment as well.
“If you’re working very hard but that’s what you have to do right now, and a friend says something like, ‘You’re working too hard,’ or, ‘You’ve taken on too much,’ those kind of judgmental statements, unfortunately, may be more hurtful than helpful,” Yager said. “Even if your friend says something to you that isn’t what you want to hear, remind yourself that your friend cares and she’s doing the best she can with your current situation.
She advised letting your friends know that you are grateful for their support as you work through whatever you’re going through.
Communicate specific needs.
“When we’re feeling stretched, we have to be efficient with our resources, including our mental health,” said Vaneeta Sandhu, a clinical psychologist and head of emotional fitness at Coa. “One important way to maintain a friendship through tough times is to communicate proactively and share your needs. This takes all of the guesswork out of how to maintain your friendship and makes sure you both are investing in the friendship in the right way.”
She suggested asking yourself questions like, “When you’re having a tough time, do you prefer friends to regularly check in with you or do you want some space? Do you prefer text exchanges or phone calls? And do you prefer to connect in the morning, afternoon or evening?”
Once you’ve gone through this exercise, make a habit of sharing your answers with loved ones so that they know how to best show up for you.
“I recommend being as specific as possible, such as, ‘I’m having a hard mental health week. It would be so helpful to go on a walk together this week,’ or, ‘I’m feeling so overwhelmed lately. Would you mind calling or texting me tomorrow to check in?’” said Stuempfig. “You can also try saying, ‘Are you free on Sunday to get together for breakfast? It would be great to see a friend.’”
When it comes to asking for help from friends, the more detailed, the better. If you need a ride to an appointment on Friday, tell them that. If you’re just looking to vent to a friend, rather than get advice or opinions, let them know. If you wish they would call you more often than usual, communicate that as well. People want to know the best way to help so that they can actually feel useful.
“Communicating your needs will also invite your friends to share their needs, increasing the strength of the connection in your friendship,” Sandhu added.
Give yourself grace.
“Cut yourself some slack on the days that are particularly difficult. If it feels uncomfortable, don’t put additional pressure on yourself to be with other people,” Levine said.
She also recommended steering clear of friends who are difficult to be with under ordinary circumstances. When you do choose to socialize, try to focus on spending time with close friends who are empathetic and perhaps do it in smaller doses than usual.
“Try to maintain a regular schedule of regular sleep, eating and exercise. Find ways to reduce your stress, perhaps taking a long walk or hike, meditating, or focusing on a hobby,” Levine advised.
“In an effort to maintain friendships, you might be trying to keep up and act ‘normal’ and therefore minimizing the very real experience you’re having with your mental health,” Jackson said. “You don’t set boundaries, so you might have people talking about things that trigger you or inviting you to places that make you uncomfortable or at times that you can’t handle. That can make things worse.”
Instead of sacrificing your mental well-being, set healthy boundaries, honor them and communicate them to your friends. While showing this kind of vulnerability can be difficult, it gives your friends a chance to show up for you, added Jackson.
For many people, setting boundaries involves carving out time to take care of themselves and saying “no” to things sometimes.
“Don’t worry about maintaining your friendships during your mental health struggles, because your close or best friends who really care about you are going to want you to take care of yourself first,” Yager said. “If there’s an important event coming up, like a birthday party or a wedding, and you just don’t feel up to attending, let your friend know that you aren’t able to participate because of what you’re going through rather than ignoring the situation or looking like you don’t care.”
Reach out in the future.
“There may be times when you don’t feel up to responding to emails, texts or phone calls ― times when you pretty much withdraw from all social interaction,” Shaw said. “During periods like this, your friends can feel dismissed. They might be confused about what’s going on ― or they might just think you’re flaky.”
When you do eventually feel up to reaching out again, do it thoughtfully. Acknowledge that you’ve been incommunicado for a while.
“And understand that some of these friends may feel less than enthusiastic about jumping back into your life,” Shaw noted, adding that this could be a good time to share why you were MIA if they aren’t aware of your struggles.
“One of my close friends ― a woman who has shared with a few of her friends that she suffers from major depression and bipolar II disorder ― has said to me that when she comes back to her social world, ‘I realize this is the time to reach out and mend. And I forgive my friends ahead of time for not getting back to me. I know that they can still love me and feel that they’ve had enough. I have to respect that.’”
Take a friendship inventory.
“I like to emphasize that when it comes to maintaining friendships, it is not the quantity of friends, but the quality,” Stuempfig said. “Just one or two trusted friends can make all the difference.”
She noted that friendships should feel supportive, which requires a safe and nonjudgmental dynamic, particularly when it comes to being open about mental health struggles. Seek out friends who are willing to have conversations about what’s happening in your inner world ― and theirs as well.
“It can be helpful for people to let go of friendships that do not feel supportive,” Stuempfig explained. “This can be difficult, particularly for long-term friendships. I encourage people to surround themselves with friends that feel they can bring out the best versions of themself and with whom they can practice being vulnerable, as well as helping their friends do the same.”
She advised taking a friendship inventory and choosing to spend your valuable time and energy with the people who make you feel supported while minimizing time on friendships filled with stress and judgment. Ultimately, tried-and-true friends will understand when you’re struggling and stand by you.
“If a friend is not supportive during this challenging time for you, that is a test on the friendship and your friend failed the test,” Yager said. “You may not want to end the friendship but it might slip from the close or best category into the casual one.”
Find the communication medium that feels best.
Today’s technology means that we can connect with each other in countless different ways ― from phone calls and voice notes to texts and WhatsApp messages to Instagram DMs and online gaming chats to emails.
“When you feel down and uninspired to reach out to your friends, I encourage you to first recognize that reaching out doesn’t mean you need to talk on the phone for 20 minutes or go out for drinks,” said Laura Sniderman, founder of the upcoming friendship app Kinnd. “It can be as simple as a text that says, ‘Hey, I just want you to know I am thinking about you.’ Or you can take it one step further and share how you’re really feeling with your friend.”
You can also acknowledge that you haven’t reached out in a while but that it’s because of your mental health and nothing to do with your friend.
“[This] will help your friend to have immense compassion, and this act of vulnerability will likely improve your friendship overall,” Sniderman said.
Seek professional help.
“While family and friends can offer support, they aren’t therapists and you don’t want to overwhelm any one person with serious problems they aren’t equipped to handle,” Levine said. “If feelings of depression and anxiety are persistent and interfering with your friendships, reach out to a mental health professional. A counselor may be able to provide you with tools and advice to better manage your problems.”
Finding a therapist can feel daunting at first, but these days, there are countless options for getting help with your mental health. From in-person sessions to video therapy, phone calls and text messaging, there’s something for everyone. And although your friends can’t play the role of therapist, they might be able to help connect you to one.
“If you don’t have a therapist and you would like to find one, if a friend is seeing a therapist now or has in the past that was especially helpful, a referral might be welcome,” Yager said.
Friendships ebb and flow throughout our lives. But these days, it may feel like all they do is ebb. Friend Zone is a HuffPost series that features reflections on the nature of our friendships and what we can do to maintain and strengthen them — plus, how to know when it’s time to let them go.