Pandemic-Related Depression is Rampant—Here’s How to Make Yourself Feel Better, According to Experts
As 2020 comes to a close, many of us can’t help but feel eager to say goodbye to this year. The pandemic—and accompanying issues such as social injustice and political divisiveness—have taken a major toll on us, and on people around the world.
As a result, it’s completely natural for us to feel sad and downhearted. And for many Americans, those feelings are unsurprisingly manifesting as full-fledged, diagnosable depression.
Research has begun to pour in as experts study the link between the pandemic and mental health disorders. One early September study from Boston University says that depression symptoms among U.S. adults has tripled with the pandemic—as of mid-April, 27.8% of respondents reported depression symptoms as compared to 8.5% before the pandemic.
Those who have contracted COVID-19 suffer from increased mental health impacts. Dr. Craig Sawchuk, clinical psychologist and co-chair of the Division of Integrated Behavioral Health at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, points to a November study which found that those with a positive diagnosis and no prior mental health history had an increased risk of developing a mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia within 14 to 90 days post-diagnosis.
“No one has been through this before,” says Lara Schuster-Effland, LICSW, regional clinical director of Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center. “So, we don’t have established coping skills to fall upon. That means crisis can happen really fast, more quickly than it might have under more normal circumstances. If an individual is experiencing prolonged, higher levels of stress and anxiety, and delaying getting help, trying to white-knuckle it at home, this can cause extremely high-risk situations for people.”
She also points to constant negative news coverage as a trigger that can cause looming anxiety. “With prolonged anxiety, depression can develop on top of that,” she says.
As we look out to 2021, many people are clinging to hope as the vaccine is right around the corner, but at the same time, stress levels and emotional vulnerability are high, and as Schuster-Effland says, “endurance is waning.”
If you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID depression, as many of us have come to call it, you’re likely wondering how you can make yourself feel better. Read on for helpful information and tips from our experts.
COVID and depression
The conditions of this year have acted as a cocktail for creating or worsening mental health disorders, such as depression.
“Earlier in the pandemic, we were trying to adjust to dramatic changes in our daily routines with stay-at-home orders, experiencing significant changes to our usual work and school rhythms, being inundated with the news, and starting to experience new onset stressors such as economic instability and possible job losses,” says Dr. Sawchuk.
He says that as the pandemic has persisted throughout the year, “all of these stressors and uncertainties have been amplified.”
“People are now experiencing more economic hardship, strain from adapting work and/or school to a completely online environment, food and shelter instability, and even the loss of loved ones,” he says. It also doesn’t help that the recommendations to maintain social distancing through the pandemic has increased feelings of loneliness, something that can easily lend itself to depression.
“We are social animals at baseline, so when we are more isolated from others, this will increase the risk for mental health problems,” Dr. Sawchuk says.
Has the pandemic worsened pre-existing depression?
If you went into the pandemic with a pre-existing mental health condition like depression, the chances are high that living through COVID-19 has only exacerbated your symptoms.
“For those who are susceptible to anxiety or depression,” says Schuster-Effland, “being in a pandemic like this has caused sustained levels of high stress. There are going to be a lot more triggers during this time that can cause a relapse to occur.”
Here, Schuster-Effland recommends that for those who were already struggling with mental health issues, they should take their “daily temperature.”
“Not just their physical temperature,” she says, “but also their mental health temperature. It’s important to be more aware because worsening symptoms can really sneak up quickly.”
What are signs and symptoms of COVID depression?
COVID-related depression mimics typical depression in many ways, but there is one key difference. “Some forms of depression may be driven largely by biological factors—we call this endogenous depression,” Dr. Sawchuk says. “But COVID depression is being driven largely by external factors and stressors—we call this exogenous depression.”
Dr. Sawchuk lists the signs and symptoms that you may be dealing with pandemic-related depression, which can look different for everyone. If you are able to, be sure to reach out to your primary care doctor or a mental health professional before self-diagnosing.
- Mood changes—feeling depressed, sad, irritable, and apathetic
- Thinking changes—worry, rumination, pessimism, and difficulty concentrating
- Behavioral changes—withdrawal and avoidance
- Physical changes—low energy, appetite disruption, and sleep problems
- Motivational changes—loss of interest and poor motivation
He emphasizes that these symptoms are not mutually exclusive to COVID-related depression but characteristic of any major depressive episode.
How to cope with COVID depression
Although you may be feeling hopeless in the midst of your depression, there are some tips from our experts that may encourage feelings of hope and could even make you feel better in your daily life.
Since depressed people tend to withdraw from others, something that’s very easy to do right now with quarantining and stay-at-home orders, Dr. Sawchuk recommends trying to reconnect with people as best you can.
“While we may not be able to connect with others in-person like we would have done pre-pandemic,” Dr. Sawchuk says, “adapting to the circumstances is key. Make a goal to reach out to healthy supports in your life via text, video, or phone on a daily basis. Staying connected with others to reduce isolation is extremely important for our mental health.”
Keep a normal sleep-wake cycle
Dr. Sawchuk says, “Depression can be characterized by excess sleeping, which may be even more amplified now for anyone who struggles with seasonal affective disorder. Maintain a normal sleep-wake routine and try to eliminate naps if possible, as that will fragment your sleep cycle.”
Even if you don’t feel like doing much of anything, try to discover a hobby that might bring you little glimmers of joy and act as a healthy distraction throughout the rest of the pandemic.
Schuster-Effland suggests, “Find a new hobby or creative outlet to keep interest and spontaneity alive in your day-to-day life.”
Look to free mental health resources
“There has been a huge increase in free resources, mostly online,” Schuster-Effland says. “This includes support groups, free help lines, and other resources that can offer information and support for those who need it.”
Know that depression is a treatable condition
Even though it doesn’t feel like it, depression can be managed and treated with the right care. Dr. Sawchuk advises, “Reach out to your primary care provider who can help get you connected to evidence-based mental health treatment options such as psychotherapy and/or medication management. Although there have been significant barriers to care due to the pandemic, many mental health providers are offering telehealth and video-based services.”
Schuster-Effland agrees, saying, “I absolutely recommend finding professional help. One positive to come out of the pandemic is much better access to mental health care through virtual telehealth.”
Remember—the pandemic won’t last forever
“We have to honor the fact that it’s normal to not feel normal,” Dr. Sawchuk says. “However, try to remain optimistic that we will eventually get to the other side of the pandemic. We are finally starting to see lights at the end of the tunnel with new therapeutics and vaccines almost being ready for dissemination. It will take time before we can start to reclaim some pre-pandemic normalcy but do know that we will get there eventually.”
Schuster-Effland also provides comforting words: “We are a species built for change, metamorphosis, and stress. We find resilience and growth in the most difficult circumstances. We will grow from this tragedy. We are learning, connecting, and evolving as we progress through the pandemic. I am comforted by the opportunity to have more time with my immediate family, something I do not take for granted. I am eager to return to vacations, family gatherings, and cookouts. However, in the meantime, I’m learning how to enjoy the simple things in life.”
- Dr. Craig Sawchuk, a clinical psychologist and co-chair of the Division of Integrated Behavioral Health at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
- Lara Schuster-Effland, LICSW, regional clinical director of Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center.
- The Lancet: “Bidirectional associations between COVID-19 and psychiatric disorder: retrospective cohort studies of 62 354 COVID-19 cases in the USA”
- The Journal of the American Medical Association: “Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic”