The last few months have been emotionally draining on many levels. Unemployment has hit an all time high. Employees and students have been forced to adapt to remote work and schooling. Loved ones have been lost. And millions of Americans have been confined to their homes with limited social interaction.
The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed many areas of daily life and taken a toll on Americans’ emotional well-being. According to a poll by Kaiser Family Foundation, for instance, 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.
Feelings of sadness and worry are completely normal responses to all the uncertainty and loss the pandemic has brought with it. But at what point do these feelings indicate something more serious? According to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly a third of Americans are now showing signs of clinical levels of depression or anxiety, meaning more than just transient sadness or stress. That’s nearly quadruple the national rate of depression compared to the same period last year.
Depression, if left untreated, can severely impact your daily life, relationships, and emotional and physical health. Understanding the signs and symptoms can help you better protect your health during the pandemic. Here’s what you should know about clinical depression:
What is depression?
Clinical depression or major depression is a mood disorder that is categorized by persistent sadness, loss of interest, or hopelessness. While it’s natural to experience bouts of sadness or mood fluctuations in response to everyday challenges, those who are depressed suffer from an unyielding sense of feeling down or low most of the day and every day, for at least a couple of weeks. Depression can often negatively impact a person’s ability to function at work or at home, as well as influence relationships. Depression symptoms may also include the following:
- Loss of interest in tasks, hobbies, or activities that typically bring joy
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Changes in appetite
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Trouble concentrating and making decisions
- Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, guilt, or failure
- Slow movement or speaking
- Inexplicable aches, pains, headaches, or cramps
What should I do if I think I’m depressed?
After months of social distancing and adapting to a new lifestyle, you may find yourself experiencing one or more of these symptoms. Feeling upset, hopeless, or sad is a completely appropriate reaction to what is going on in the world right now. It’s normal to go through ups and downs in life, but if you feel your quality of life isn’t where you’d like it to be or don’t feel quite like yourself, it may be time to talk with someone. You don’t have to wait until things are terrible. Talk to your friends and family, and don’t forget that your primary care provider will be always willing to help and prevent things from getting worse. Your primary care provider can help determine whether you are depressed and rule out other medical conditions that may cause similar symptoms, as well as help develop a personalized care plan.
I’m having thoughts of hurting myself, who can I contact for help now?
If you are feeling that life is too hard to keep living, you have thoughts of harming yourself, or need to speak with someone immediately about yourself or someone you are worried about, please contact the national suicide prevention line, 1-800-273-8255, or the national crisis text line (text 741-741) which provides anonymous and confidential crisis counseling via text messages.
What are some ways I can help reduce my depressive symptoms?
Along with professional help, there are several small steps you can take to improve your overall sense of well-being. Slight changes to your diet, sleep routine, exercise, and daily activity can significantly boost your mood and outlook on the world. Here are some tips for protecting your mental health during this time:
1. Cut back on alcohol
While many people may have a drink to relax or destress, alcohol is a depressant that can actually worsen anxiety and depression symptoms. Though it may produce mild euphoric effects in the short term, alcohol interrupts the activity of neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphin that play an important role in your mood. It can also drain your energy and motivation. Along with this, alcohol can negatively impact your sleep quality by interrupting your circadian rhythm and inhibiting REM sleep. Sleep deprivation, in turn, can affect your attention and concentration, as well as your work and relationships. Here are tips on reducing your alcohol consumption.
2. Stop recreational drug use
It may be helpful to cut back on recreational drugs, especially if you use them to destress. Many drugs can take a heavy toll on your physical and mental health and can exacerbate mood disorders. If you are feeling depressed, stopping any recreational drug use can help you better regulate your mood.
Try to sweat every day. Exercise can help reduce elevated cortisol or stress levels, as well as trigger the release of endorphins, boosting your overall happiness. Start with just 10 minutes. Run up and down your stairs or around your block a couple of times and build up from there. There are plenty of exercise classes and workouts to choose from online, from dance and spinning, to yoga and HITT. Just be sure to wear a mask if you plan to exercise outdoors around others.
4. Look for joy
Did you love to draw as a kid? Get off your screen and start doodling. Have a new recipe you’ve been excited to try? Pick up your cookbook. While coronavirus may be serious, you shouldn’t spend all your time worried or stressed about the pandemic. It’s important to find time, even as an adult, to play and have fun. Sing in the shower. Read romance novels. Help a neighbor. Dance. Tinker. Listen to comedy. Do a crossword. You might even consider learning a new language or trying a new hobby. Find time outside your busy schedule to do something that brings you joy. These are all healthy distractions that will keep you in the present moment.
5. Take in the world around you
Appreciate the weather — both the sunny and rainy days. The planet still has seasons and things are continuing to change around us, even if it feels like things have come to a standstill. Notice how things grow, change and evolve around us. It’s important to remember that everything is temporary and that this is just one phase of life.
Deep breathing sends more oxygen to the brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a state of relaxation. Mindful breathing can be a simple but very effective tool to help calm your mind and refresh your perspective. If you’re feeling down, try a body scan like this one. You can also try the 4-7-8 breathing technique: inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. Yoga and meditation practices can also help you focus on regulating your breath.
7. Be intentional
Focus on doing one thing at a time. You don’t need to watch TV, scroll Instagram, and eat pretzels at the same time. Just sit down with a book or focus on the meal that you are eating. It’s easy to fall into autopilot mode and ruminate on negative thoughts when you are multitasking. Taking the time to taste your food, enjoy a walk outside, or play a game without distraction will help you stay rooted in the present.
8. Consider your future self
Think about how you want to feel next week, next month and next year. What needs to change in your life to meet those goals? If you want to be healthier, how do you change your diet, increase your exercise, or schedule those medical appointments? If you want to have a better job, how do you network, connect to others, or learn new skills?
9. Anchor in your values
Are you living consistently with what is important to you? If you are not, working toward being more consistent with what really matters can help. When you are experiencing depression, or even persistent sadness, we often get lost in that emotion. It is hard to gain perspective around what it is that matters beyond what you are often ruminating about. Identifying your values, like in this exercise from the Greater Good of Science Center, and pulling back to get a broader perspective, allows us to be more open to alternatives and new information.
10. Stay connected
While social interaction may look different now because of the pandemic, you don’t have to go through this tough period alone. There are plenty of ways to connect with friends and family virtually to get support. Pick up the phone or arrange a video call. Schedule a virtual happy hour or game night. If you’re able to, you may even consider getting together with friends and family for a social distance gathering. Just be sure to stay outside, wear masks and maintain six feet of distance. For more tips on safely visiting friends and family right now, see here.
If you have done all of this and you are still feeling down for long periods of time and can’t shake it even for a few hours, schedule an appointment with your health care provider to talk about next steps. Your mental health is vital for your overall well being. We are here for you when you need it. Contact us today!
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.