Coping with Depression Signs During the Pandemic
By: Roger Weiss, MD
Chief, Medical & Clinical Development – California
During the Covid 19 pandemic, the recent year has caused many of us to make unnatural and drastic changes to our lives that have had overt and more subtle effects on all of us. When we speak of depression under these circumstances, we are talking about it with a small “d.”
Depression can manifest itself by feelings of sadness or feeling blue, feeling down, with less energy than usual. It can be a decrease in the pleasure that we would usually experience from particular events. It can cause us to sleep poorly and can increase or decrease one’s appetite.
We are not talking about Clinical Depression, which is a more serious problem. Rather, this phenomenon is the normal feelings that we have during the experience of chronic trauma.
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Depression and Loss in the Pandemic
Depression in reaction to loss is expected and normal. One of the hallmarks of this year for many people has been a loss. Loss of social contact, loss of work, loss of touch, loss of being able to congregate with people we love.
Part of that loss is separation, either short or long distances, the inability to travel to those we feel close to. Loss of the feeling of control has been another major component of this year, and not knowing when it will all get better.
This particular emotion is often accompanied by anxiety or feeling frightened. We are used to feeling a degree of control and agency in our lives. When that is gone, feelings of anxiety often appear.
Symptoms of Depression in the Face of Loss
Some of us express this type of depression with physical symptoms, headache, gastrointestinal changes, anger, and irritability. These symptoms can be subtle and come and go.
We may notice that it is easier to lose our patience with those around us or when something doesn’t go right. This is particularly intensified in families where children who would ordinarily be at school are now at home full time. Families may be struggling with parents trying to work from home and manage their now-homeschooled children at the same time.
On the other end of the spectrum are those people living alone who counted on outside social relationships to sustain them. Now cut off from social contact, their level of loneliness and isolation can intensify.
All of these descriptions of the various forms of depression are being seen by those mental health care professionals involved in treating people for manifestations of depression and anxiety. However, the large majority of people are simply struggling silently by themselves without help.
In some cases, professional help is not necessary. In others, there may be resistance or shame in feeling that one needs to speak with someone about their state of mind.
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How to Cope in a Crisis
We experience chronic trauma very differently over a spectrum of possibilities. Several concepts can make dealing with a long-term unnatural change in life circumstances easier to handle.
Some people feel better during times of crisis by exercising a more defensive posture and denying their realities. They may make themselves busy with work or take up new hobbies, study, or learn a new language. This may be the coping mechanism that works best for a segment of the population and is perfectly fine.
Talk About Your Emotions
For others, and probably the majority of people, they feel the emotions described above more intensely. For this group, being able to recognize their feelings and talk about them is very important. It’s what makes them feel more connected and less alone with their feelings.
Speaking with friends and family is sometimes sufficient if those relationships are accessible. At other times, speaking with someone trained in dealing with emotional distress is required, like a psychotherapist.
The important message for this group is that they feel better recognizing and not denying their emotions. Feeling understood makes us feel less afraid and alone and can have a profound therapeutic effect.
Adjust Expectations and Adapt
The ability to recognize the changes that are out of our control and adapt to them makes the situation more palatable. Continuing to maintain life as usual when that is impossible will only lead to disappointment and a greater sense of loss.
The difference between expectation and our true reality equals the amount of disappointment and despair we will feel. Adjusting expectations in line with what is possible will allow us to adapt and find a new equilibrium that can be satisfying and create a greater sense of safety.
This process may even give rise to new behaviors, leading to a different kind of unexpected fulfillment. An example would be families spending more time together now that everyone is working from home. This will be gratifying if the longing for and expectation of a more exciting and active life outside the house is given up temporarily.
Resilience is the ability and strength to make necessary changes and adapt to difficult circumstances presented to us. Recognizing the change and loss of control, adapting life to the change, and accepting it can allow us to develop resilience and staying power to outlast the negative circumstances we are faced with.
It is important to keep in mind that this present reality of a global pandemic has affected everyone in our society. No matter your profession or line of work, we are all faced with the same abrupt change to life as we knew it. We will get through it, but the adaptation process is a major aid in reducing stress.