The pandemic has thrown everybody for a loop in ways that we couldn’t have imagined. Jobs and financial security were up-ended and remain uncertain. Family routines are disrupted. Social structures are fractured. The daily norm has been thrown out the window. We’ve all been trained to believe that if we work harder, faster, more precisely, that we will persevere and overcome. Those are all admirable qualities, but when pushing through the chaos starts to weigh heavily on our mental health, it is important to be aware of the signs that we may be slipping into a depressed state.
Studies from early summer suggest depression symptoms in the U.S. have increased more than 3x due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those with lower social and economic resources, causing them increased exposure to stressors, suffered a higher rate of depression symptoms.
Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal thoughts.
These elevated levels of individuals reporting increased signs of depression are alarming and should not be ignored. Not everyone may be experiencing the most severe symptoms, but even a moderate change in our physical reaction to stress can cause harm over time. People are not meant to remain in a constant state of stress; read about how the body responds in a “fight or flight” manner when presented with stress factors.
Here are some signs to watch out for in yourself and others through this trying time.
Lost interest/withdrawal from activities
This symptom may be tough to pinpoint at first. The different routine and demand of daily schedules may not allow for immediate recognition that you are no longer looking to participate in activities that you once enjoyed. Evaluate your current level of interest in past times that you once enjoyed- sports, crafts, reading, keeping in contact with friends, etc. If you notice that even when you have down time you aren’t seeking to participate in the same things, ask yourself why. Small changes in participation may not be alarming, but if you find that interest is seriously lacking speak to your provider for guidance.
Withdrawal may be more apparent if you had regularly participated in activities that included other people. Those who thrive on social interactions – team sports, clubs, meeting places, theater, restaurants and other outlets, may be mourning their loss. As we shared last week, online meetings and socialization don’t provide the body the same “feel good” feedback, so even if we’ve worked to adjust how we socialize to try and fill that void, it may not be providing us the emotional support we need.
Fatigue and sleep problems
This likely doesn’t surprise anybody- there is so much going on between the pandemic, politics, and daily life that once you get in bed to rest, your mind may just not turn off. But if you find that the difference in sleep quality is significant to where it impacts your daily life, consider speaking to your provider about how to make adjustments. The sooner the better too, as sleep is a cornerstone to our health in every respect.
Depression is also linked with insomnia, as one might lead to the other and vice versa. They can also make each other worse. The lack of quality, restful sleep can also lead to anxiety; try these tips to help get better sleep.
Change in appetite or weight
Both weight loss or gain may be attributed to depression. Any change in the relationship with food and nutrition may be cause for alarm.
If you find that your appetite is waning due to anxiety or potentially depression, be mindful of it and work to still provide yourself nutrition even if it is not in the same quantities as before the pandemic. Can’t stomach the thought of your normal breakfast? Eat foods high in protein (eggs, Greek yogurt), add fruit and grains to give yourself a well-rounded start to the day. Keep healthy snacks on hand so you can graze throughout the day and it may not feel as daunting as making whole meals.
On the flip side, overeating due to stress and struggling to stop eating comfort foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition, can lead to health problems too. Eating well is crucial to how we feel- if you need help finding a realistic starting point to tackle these obstacles, speak to your provider or seek guidance from a nutritionist.
While depression hasn’t been shown to cause anxiety, the two conditions often occur together. Symptoms of anxiety can include:
- nervousness, restlessness, or feeling tense
- feelings of danger, panic, or dread
- rapid heart rate
- rapid breathing
- increased or heavy sweating
- trembling or muscle twitching
- trouble focusing or thinking clearly about anything other than the thing you’re worried about
Most people will experience some amount of anxiety during stressful times. Addressing the situation or emotion that caused the anxiety are often enough to provide relief. Some, however, will experience levels of anxiety that are debilitating and overwhelming, resulting in secondary behaviors that can cause additional physical or mental harm. If you find that you cannot overcome anxiety through healthy coping mechanisms such as relaxation techniques, exercise, speaking to friends and family, distracting yourself, etc., please speak to your provider for support.
Changes in mood are to be expected as we all work through the variety of stressors occurring these days. But, if you find that you, or somebody you love, is experiencing a more drastic range of emotions- like one minutes you’re feeling o.k., and then you’re suddenly crying, very angry (or any other emotion), consider that this may be attributed to the stress you’ve taken on and should be addressed.
TThis category includes a wide range of behavior, from using legal and illegal substances, alcohol, excessive exercising, eating, shopping, etc. The detail that separates it from normal behavior is when it’s used as a crutch or reflexive reaction to deal with the stress rather than addressing the stressor itself.
People working to overcome substance (legal and illegal drugs, alcohol) abuse also face a unique challenge during the pandemic. Those in treatment are uniquely challenged by physical distancing measures. Self-quarantine and other public health measures may disrupt access to medications and other support services. Federal agencies have taken steps to expand access to needed medications during the pandemic.
For those in recovery, social support is crucial since social isolation is a risk factor for relapse. Even though the physical distancing measures being implemented nationwide are important for reducing disease transmission, they may be especially difficult for people in recovery because they limit access to meetings of peer-support groups and other sources of social connection. Although face-to-face interaction is a key feature of recovery support, virtual meetings may be useful for those with access to the internet.
If you or somebody you know is struggling with substance abuse, you can contact the national SAMHSA (substance abuse and mental health services administration) helpline (1-800-662-4357). It is confidential, free, with assistance from public health agencies, and resources for substance use treatment and information.
Dr. Elizabeth Reichert, assistant professor of Stanford Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, shared that especially during times such as these, “it is ok not to ‘feel ok’ or completely yourself”. Exhibiting signs of depression is one way that the body communicates that stress levels are beyond the norm, and provides an opportunity to address the emotions you are feeling.
Sometimes just knowing you aren’t alone, sharing with others and using methods such as these, can make a pivotal difference. But when these feelings impact your life and keep you from functioning, please seek intervention. There’s a whole spectrum of relief available.