Have you ever met someone so seemingly happy and upbeat that it completely blindsided you to find out that they were dealing with some very dark and serious feelings? Or that they had suffered a terrible tragedy in the past that left them emotionally traumatized?
While we’d all like to think we’d know if something was wrong with someone we’re close to or that we’d easily be able to tell if a loved one of ours was feeling down and unhappy, the scary truth is, you never really know everything that’s going on in another person’s life. You only know as much as they’re willing to show you.
And if the startling rates of suicide and untreated depression are anything to go by, we all need to do a better job of looking out for our loved ones. So, how can you tell if someone is secretly unhappy? Well, here are 7 warning signs you need to look out for:
1. They’re often deflecting.
Whether it’s through humor, sarcasm, or just by being downright dismissive, when someone is secretly unhappy, you’ll start to notice how often they deflect serious questions and conversations. They never talk about anything important going on in their lives anymore and they’ve stopped confiding in you for seemingly no reason. Even when you know they’re going through something (like failing a class, or dealing with their parents’ divorce for example), you just can’t get them to open up about it. At best, they will shrug, laugh it off, or make some witty remark that makes it seem like it’s no big deal at all to them.
2. They give short responses.
Another common way people tend to deflect topics they don’t feel comfortable talking about is by giving short responses. So if you’ve noticed your friend or family member talking a lot less and being more curt than usual, then that should be your first clue that something is definitely wrong. Have they stopped talking to you or texting you as much? Do they stay uncharacteristically quiet in conversations now? Or don’t give their opinions even when asked? Apathy and disinterest is one of the first signs of depression (American Psychological Association, 2013), so watch out.
3. They cancel plans.
Has your loved one been cancelling on you a lot lately? Have they been showing up uncharacteristically late or started skipping school/missing work? Try to talk to them about it and ask them why. Even if their reasons seem plausible and they reassure you that everything’s fine, keep a close eye on them still. Then, if they start bailing on things that are important to them (like that recital they’ve been rehearsing for for months, or that competition they worked so hard to get in), then that’s a red flag you shouldn’t ignore.
4. They sleep a lot.
Did you know that oversleeping is one of the most noticeable symptoms of depression? Just like with insomnia (the inability to sleep), any significant disturbance in a person’s sleeping pattern believed to have a psychological reason is most likely due to strong feelings of depression (American Psychological Association, 2013). People often turn to sleep when they feel lost and empty, unmotivated to get out of bed and do anything with their lives. And what’s even more telling is, even though a depressed person may spend most of the day sleeping and lying in bed, they will still feel exhausted and have no energy.
5. They like to be alone more.
When someone tries to push you away, it’s often subtle and happens gradually over time. They may go from cancelling plans to not bothering to make any all together. And though they may tell you something else, the real reason why is because they find themselves wanting to be alone more and more lately. So they stop posting online, responding to messages, and returning your calls because they are emotionally withdrawing and isolating themselves from others as a way of coping with the unhappiness they are struggling to repress (Taylor, Nguyen, & Chatters, 2018).
6. They’ve become timid.
Once confident, animated, and easygoing, you’ve noticed a change in the person in front of you now. Their smile doesn’t seem as genuine anymore, or their laughter as easy. They’ve stopped dressing up and maybe even stopped bothering with their appearance altogether. They dress in clothes that they can hide in (like hoodies and sweatpants) and don’t like to draw attention to themselves. They walk quietly, in small strides, and usually duck their head down while they do. They make themselves small by taking up as little space as possible and keep their hand gestures to a minimum.
7. They’re easily upset.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, if someone gets easily upset in a way that’s uncharacteristic of them, then it’s most likely because there is some emotional turmoil they’re trying to conceal from everyone else (Carvalho, et al., 2013). It’s especially troubling if this person is usually level-headed, calm, and mild-mannered, but has suddenly become easily distressed or angered. They are now quick to snap at those around them or cry over something that wasn’t even meant to hurt their feelings. And the moment you try to comfort them or tell them to calm down, they will start to insist that everything is fine, that it’s nothing. But you should know better than to fall for it.
So, do you relate to any of the signs we’ve mentioned here? Did anyone in particular come to mind while you were reading this? If you have a friend, family member, or loved one in your life you think may be struggling with feelings of serious unhappiness or depression, don’t hesitate to reach out to them and offer a helping hand. Lend them a sympathetic ear and reassure them that you are here for them in these troubling times. Most of all, try to help them get in touch with a mental healthcare professional as a way of showing your support.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). Data & Statistics on Children’s Mental Health. Retrieved 02 July 2020 from https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html
- Smail, D. (2018). The origins of unhappiness: a new understanding of personal distress. Routledge.
- American Psychological Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5th Edition. Washington, DC; APA Publishing.
- Taylor, H. O., Taylor, R. J., Nguyen, A. W., & Chatters, L. (2018). Social isolation, depression, and psychological distress among older adults. Journal of aging and health, 30(2), 229-246. Taylor,
- Carvalho, A. F., Hyphantis, T. N., Taunay, T. C., Macêdo, D. S., Floros, G. D., Ottoni, G. L., … & Lara, D. R. (2013). The relationship between affective temperaments, defensive styles and depressive symptoms in a large sample. Journal of affective disorders, 146(1), 58-65.