The human brain has a remarkable capacity to bounce back from periods of acute stress. Overcoming temporary strife builds resilience and hones our problem-solving skills, ultimately empowering us to face subsequent challenges. When stress becomes chronic, however, the brain loses its ability to adapt effectively. Repeated stress is a significant cause of depression, anxiety, and burnout; it can also make the brain more susceptible to future bouts of depression.
As we entered the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health toll of chronic stress (in the form of repeated lockdowns and multiple waves of infection) is becoming increasingly evident. Rates of anxiety and depression have tripled during the pandemic, with 33% of adults currently reporting symptoms of either condition (up from just 11% at the same time last year). The situation is even worse for children and adolescents. Recent reports from mental health professionals paint an alarming picture: child anxiety and depression rates are skyrocketing due to lockdowns, and there is a significant increase in suicide attempts and suicidal ideation in teenagers and young adults. Parents should pay close attention to their children and watch for the warning signs of anxiety and depression.
Though COVID-related mental health problems are most prevalent among individuals facing social and economic adversity, the effects of pandemic fatigue are visible throughout the general population. For many people, the ongoing crisis is magnifying relationship issues, career dissatisfaction, and other concerns that existed before COVID-19. Without corrective action, this situation threatens to disrupt the balance between our mental health needs and the demands of our personal and professional lives – pushing vulnerable individuals to their breaking point. If you’re struggling with pandemic depression, it’s crucial to recognize and address its symptoms to minimize the risk of both acute and long-term complications.
What Does Pandemic Depression Look Like?
The signs of depression vary for each individual, and depression related to COVID-19 may manifest differently than classical depression. Some people experience conventional depression symptoms, such as sleep changes (hypersomnia or insomnia), appetite changes, low mood, negative or anxious thoughts, and loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities. For others, pandemic depression is more insidious: An individual may feel like he (or she) is coping well, only to lose the ability to concentrate on simple tasks, for example. Public health measures have also made some depression symptoms (like social withdrawal) harder to identify, adding to the confusion surrounding this condition.
Because pandemic depression can take so many forms, you should remain vigilant for any unusual changes in your habits or behavior. Pay attention to the “little things” and don’t pressure yourself to accept the impact COVID-19 has on your life. By staying self-aware, you can quickly take action to protect your mental health from the effects of chronic stress.
What’s the Best Way to Manage Pandemic Depression?
Treating pandemic depression starts with recognizing and understanding how COVID-19 has affected your basic needs. All human beings have fundamental needs they must meet to maintain optimal quality of life and achieve self-actualization. (Modern psychology defines self-actualization as the complete realization of one’s potential through personal growth.) Even if you’ve successfully altered your behavior to conform to public health restrictions, those needs haven’t gone away.
To thrive despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, you’ll need to stop putting your needs “on hold” as you wait out the pandemic. Instead, it’s vitally important to evaluate what your needs are, how the pandemic has interfered with meeting them, and what steps you can take to adapt.
Exploration, Love, and Purpose: How to Find Meaning in Difficult Times
Though no two people’s needs are exactly alike, research by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman suggests that the vast majority of people achieve self-actualization through maintaining a sense of exploration, love, and purpose. If you’re struggling with a persistently low mood and a lack of motivation, finding new ways to satisfy those needs may provide some relief. Below, we’ll examine how you can adjust to the “new normal” while honoring your requirement for meaning and connection.
As a species, human beings have an intense need to explore and understand the world around them. With so many of us currently isolated at home, however, it’s easy to become preoccupied with bad news and forget that we’re living in a diverse and magnificent world. Studies show that reading or watching negative news stories contributes to higher rates of depression and anxiety. It may also lower your immunity, making you more susceptible to COVID-19.
To avoid over-consuming news media, use the internet as a tool of discovery for finding positive, enriching content. Virtual experiences, such as virtual tours and online classes, provide a safe way to explore the planet, deepen your knowledge, and discover your strengths. Consider learning a new language, virtually travelling to remote locations, or taking up a new hobby with the aid of an online coach.
Exercising outdoors is another excellent way to improve your mood while continuing to explore. Studies show that regular exercise helps prevent depression and anxiety and improves sleep quality. Spending time in nature has similar benefits: According to research published by Harvard Health, taking even a brief walk in a natural area reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is most active during rumination. (Rumination describes the cycle of repeated negative thoughts experienced by many people with depression and anxiety.)
Expressing love – for yourself and others – is another powerful way to silence negative thoughts and build resilience. If you’re struggling with pandemic depression, share what you’re going through with family, friends, and a trained professional. In many areas, in-person therapy is still available; alternately, you can access mental health care through online or telehealth services. Some workplaces have started providing access to online therapy in response to COVID-19, so you may wish to talk to your employer about this option.
In your relationships, look for opportunities to surprise people you care about with unexpected acts of kindness. Hosting virtual gatherings for your friends, having date nights at home with your partner, or calling elderly relatives can strengthen your sense of social connection while helping those around you weather the pandemic. If you want to continue to expand your social network, consider volunteering for a good cause.
Maintaining a strong sense of purpose is crucial to surviving times of crisis. Having a purpose provides a map for navigating uncertainty, which mitigates some of the harms associated with chronic stress. Research shows that holding onto a sense of purpose builds resilience and helps people recover from negative events more quickly.
Instead of allowing the pressures of the pandemic to derail your sense of purpose, use isolation to reflect on how you can make your life more meaningful. Consider what you’re passionate about and think about ways you might use your aptitudes to contribute to the greater good. This may take the form of looking after your family and friends, reaching out to those in your professional circle, or helping those in need. It’s also possible to use creative skills – such as photography, painting, or writing – to help others cope with the pandemic. Ultimately, how you choose to find purpose is up to you; anything that brings you a sense of hope and meaning is worth exploring.
Coping with pandemic depression requires patience, discipline, and an honest evaluation of your life, but it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for growth and change. By learning how to meet your needs for exploration, love, and purpose even in the most challenging times, you’ll fortify your mental health against future crises. You will also cultivate a perspective of meaning and gratitude – One that will continue to elevate your mood long after the pandemic has ended.