If You're Dealing With Pandemic Depression, You're Not Alone — Here's What You Can Do
This pandemic has become a health crisis in more ways than one. COVID-19 is a clear threat to our physical health, but the feelings of fear, uncertainty, and isolation it's led to have also created a very real mental health crisis, especially coupled with other traumatic events over the past few months: graphic displays of police brutality against Black people, devastating natural disasters, and heightening political unrest. Recent studies are already showing the effects on our mental health. By mid-April, according to a Boston University study, rates of depression symptoms had already tripled compared to pre-pandemic levels. Another study revealed that younger adults, racial minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported worse mental health outcomes, increased substance abuse, and elevated suicidal ideation due to the pandemic.
"This is a very, very difficult time," Chevonna Gaylor, LMFT, a Los Angeles-based therapist, told POPSUGAR. "For people who have already struggled with depression, it's going to be worse. With people who have never experienced depression, they may now be struggling. We're going to see a heightened experiencing of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, at the very least."
Why Are We Experiencing Pandemic Depression?
"Several factors are contributing to the major increase we are seeing in depressive symptoms," said Nzinga Harrison, MD, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Eleanor Health.
- The pandemic came without warning and disrupted our routines. "Our brains experience routine as safety," Dr. Harrison told POPSUGAR. When we lose our normal routine without warning, "our brains experience that as danger." This is a big reason why we feel off-kilter, lost, or even panicked when something throws off our normal schedule.
- We lost access to many support systems. Forced physical and social distancing meant we couldn't gather with friends or family or take refuge in places outside of our homes. "During a time of acute stress when, for most of us, the natural reaction is to engage our support group, we couldn't," Dr. Harrison said.
- The pandemic and its effect on our lives are prolonged, with no ending in sight. Our brains have an easier time processing threats that have a known ending, Dr. Harrison explained. "We can grit and push our way through it." When there's no definitive end in sight, it feels unbearable to our minds, leading to feelings of hopelessness.
Take all of these factors together, throw in a relentlessly negative news cycle, and you get a perfect storm for mental health. And not only can these factors cause depressive symptoms; they can also make that depression even harder to deal with, due to the reduced access to our healthy routines and social circles. It can also cause you to lean on less healthy forms of coping, Dr. Harrison said, like increased alcohol use.
So what can you do to deal with symptoms of depression during a pandemic? Our experts offered four key tips.
Connect With Others
"The most important thing to do is to get connected," Dr. Harrison said, and the science backs it up. According to a recent study, social connection is the most effective way to prevent depression as an adult. More specifically, confiding in others and visiting with friends and family were both important factors. Physically being with other people is not an option for many of us right now, so look for other ways to connect. Schedule Zoom calls with your friends and family, text your friends regularly, call up people you love when you're feeling down, or even write letters so you have something to look forward to.
Strive For a Sense of Routine and Normalcy
As we've seen over the past few months, one or two changes to our schedules (like gyms and offices being closed) can leave us feeling unmoored. Since routine is so crucial for our mental health, it's important to reintroduce a schedule during the pandemic. "Try to get back a sense of normalcy," Gaylor advised. Look at things like your sleep schedule, work hours, and workout plan and do your best to settle into a sustainable daily routine. It might be hard at first, but the sense of routine will help you feel safer and more in control.
Give Yourself Some Grace
"Many people feel like they are struggling alone, but you are not alone," Dr. Harrison said. "We are all backsliding a bit on our health behaviors as we navigate this difficult time, so give yourself some grace." Understand that it's challenging to get through the day-to-day right now, and don't feel bad for having a hard time. Show yourself compassion when you're struggling.
Keep an Eye Out For Risky Behaviors
Even as you give yourself grace and compassion, watch out for growing habits that are risky for physical or mental health. "If you are drinking more, using more medications, or smoking more, and worrying that it may be getting out of control, please reach out for help," Dr. Harrison said. "If you find yourself thinking of death or feeling like you can't handle things, please reach out for help. If you see someone else struggling, please reach out with an offer to help." If you're at this point, working with a mental health professional can help. Here are tips for finding a therapist and starting teletherapy right now.
If you are feeling anxious or depressed and need help finding help or resources, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (1-800-950-6264) have resources available.
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal ideation or are at risk, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has several resources and a 24/7 lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.