Even when people don’t vocalize their struggles, there are often subtle signs that deeper troubles are brewing.
Drawing on personal and psychological knowledge and patterns I’ve noticed in friends and family, here are some indicators that someone you know may be going through hard times silently.
1) They don’t seem interested in their hobbies and routines anymore
Often, hobbies and routines are what keep us grounded and happy. But they can also be the first things to go when we feel down or out of control. I have an elderly relative who doesn’t complain but has lost interest in his hobbies since COVID-19.
If you ask him whats up, he says he’s fine. But I sometimes think that isn’t true. When our enjoyable activities no longer spark that feel-good dopamine rush in the brain, it removes a vital mood-boosting coping mechanism.
And it can be a vicious cycle. As we get less inclined to do the things that make us feel good, we feel worse.
So keep an eye out for anyone who is missing from your social circle and try to gently encourage them back into it. Offer to participate in their hobby with them or plan a related outing together. Just getting started again can help momentum build back up.
2) They’ve started to socially isolate
One of the problems with neglecting your hobbies and likes, is the loss of community. When people are struggling, they may find it hard to talk to anyone about their problems, feeling as though they don’t want to burden people perhaps.
The perceived need to pretend everything is fine can be exhausting for someone already drained. Conversations seem to require a vulnerability that seems intolerable when you’re in distress.
They may dread being asked how they are, since they may feel they need to lie and say they are fine. Even though they aren’t.
So they socially isolate, which makes them feel worse. Check-in on isolated friends regularly. Make it clear they won’t be judged if they open up about any troubles. Help them reengage with support communities gently.
3) The light has gone from their eyes
Sometimes people have accused me of ‘face crime’. It’s a joke but it comes from George Orwell’s classic book 1984 where you had to keep your negative emotions off your face. On several occasions when I’ve been struggling, I have tried to appear fine and sound like my bubbly self. And I think I’m doing a good job. But people take one look at my face and know that something is up.
This might be more subtle in others but if you notice something missing from the essence of someone, then they may be struggling.
The eyes and facial expressions give away hidden distress that faked smiles attempt to mask. Pay attention to mismatches between cheerful words and the deeper reality reflected on their faces.
4) They don’t laugh as much and if they do you feel their heart isn’t fully in it
They often say that the saddest of people smile and laugh a lot. Comedians are well known for often being very happy on stage and in company and depressive in person. Other people might find it more difficult to fake being happy but still manage it.
But if you are closely attuned to a friend you might just notice their eyes again. Maybe the smile doesn’t quite reach the eyes? Or you just sense that something is off and that they are really trying to fit in, but the sadness is there.
Look and listen below the surface for hints of disconnect between upbeat tones. Watch out for flat emotions underneath.
5) They may have problems with hygiene
If you know someone who usually keeps themselves and their home pretty clean, and then this starts to change, this is a sure warning sign for depression. If people feel very low then tasks like cleaning the house or even showering can feel huge.
The monumental effort needed to complete basic self-care when you’re struggling emotionally or mentally cannot be overstated.
It’s hard to bring up things like this but if you want to help someone in this state perhaps offer to clean their house with them. You might also see if you can encourage them to get ready to go somewhere with you, using the dopamine hit of a shower to wake them up and potentially brighten their day.
Framing it as beneficial for you too can reduce sting.
6) They seem to be sleeping all the time
So I mentioned my elderly relative that I’m a bit worried about. He sleeps a lot. And is in bed a lot. Far more than when he was actively doing his hobbies. Again if I ask him he says he’s fine or that his back hurts (which is probably true), but I think we both know that if he became a little bit more active it would help his energy levels.
And this in turn would help to combat some of the other symptoms.
If you’re in a similar situation, be encouraging but not judgmental. It’s really all we can do a lot of the time. You might also help them track mood and energy with and without various wellness habits to identify useful changes. Sometimes having concrete data can catalyze people’s motivation.
7) Conversation topics seem to always end up negative
I had a depressed friend. We knew things were hard for her. But no matter what topic, however mild, that we tried to talk about with her, it would always come out depressing. Glass half empty kind of thing.
Her gloomy perspective colored everything dimly, automatically zooming in on the worst aspects of even generally positive news.
It became almost impossible to spend extended time with her I’m sad to say.
It’s normal for people to be more sad when things are hard, but if someone can’t see the positive in anything, this is a sign that they need more help, ideally from a doctor or naturopath who can work on balancing neurotransmitters and thought patterns.
Counseling can also really help with reframing habits, thoughts, and feelings.
8) They look frazzled – fight or flight vs rest and digest
Our bodies have built-in systems to keep us regulated, including the autonomic nervous system. There are two sides that keep your body in balance. One is to keep you safe in danger, and the other is to keep you calm.
First, there’s the sympathetic side. When danger strikes, it floods your body with alert energy so you can fight or run. Then there’s the parasympathetic chill-out side. When the threat passes, it hits the brakes, bringing everything back down so you can catch your breath and digest your food again.
The keyed-up sympathetic side prepares you for action. The calming parasympathetic vibes help you rest and recover. These two teams work together to handle emergencies as well as peaceful relaxed times.
However, when someone has been under stress for a long time, the system can go haywire, leaving people feeling as though they are always on the go. Or can’t calm down and get into “rest and digest mode”. Heart rates remain accelerated. Muscles stay tensed up. Sleep suffers.
Breathwork, exercise, meditation, and supplements such as adrenal support are some ways to bring this into balance again, and if necessary contact a health practitioner, functional medicine doctor or other holistic practitioner.
What to do if your friend seems unhappy:
If someone in your life seems to be quietly going through hard times, reach out with compassion. Let them know you’re available without judgment whenever they feel ready to open up. Offer gentle encouragement to connect with communities, hobbies, and self-care habits that nourish their spirit.
Perhaps participate alongside them. And if darker feelings persist, don’t shy away from gently guiding them towards any needed professional support.
Even small gestures to make things easier can help a lot in shouldering unspoken burdens. We all go through challenges, and being truly seen and cared for in difficult seasons makes every difference.
By meeting others right where they are with empathy, we spread more of that unconditional love this world desperately needs.
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