What to do if social distancing is making you feel depressed, according to experts
Trigger warning: This article discusses depression.
When the first social distancing mandates swept through the country in March, many of us became cut off from our main support systems as our social circles shrank to just the people we lived with. Even now as the country progressively reopens, some of us are still not in close physical contact with friends and family. These isolating circumstances can make it challenging not to succumb to depression, whether you have a history of depressive disorder or not. To get more insight, we spoke to a few mental health experts about the reasons this pandemic can cause depression, how to pinpoint depressive symptoms in yourself, and what you can do now to feel a bit better.
Why you may be feeling depressed right now
Dr. Brian Wind, chief clinical officer at JourneyPure, tells HelloGiggles that because our current circumstances are so different from our normal lives, it’s understandable to feel very out of sorts. “Humans are social creatures—we have a natural need for social contact, so social distancing and isolation will inevitably make many people feel lonely,” Dr. Wind explains. “When you add in the uncertainty, fear, and stress that they are experiencing, it’s easy for people to feel as though they are alone.”
Similarly, Dr. Hong Yin, psychiatrist for New Frontiers Psychiatric & TMS, notes that being deprived of connection and activity can be seriously detrimental to our wellbeing. “Loneliness leaves us a lot of time to get into our own heads and for some us, that’s a bad place to be alone,” Dr. Yin tells HelloGiggles. “Pairing that with the lack of options of other activities for enjoyment to occupy our time, we can be left with way too much time that we’re not sure what to do with.”
“Most of us need socialization to varying degrees,” Dr. Yin continues. “By not getting our psychological needs met, that is one risk factor for falling into a depression.”
What are the symptoms of depression to look out for?
Typically, mental health experts identify depression based on whether or not someone is isolating themselves from friends and family or withdrawing from the things they enjoy. But because that is the nature of life right now, it can be hard to tell whether you’re simply feeling down because of the restrictive nature of social distancing or experiencing depression that may require outside attention.
William Schroeder, licensed professional counselor and co-founder of Just Mind Counseling, tells HelloGiggles that everyone, but especially people with a history of depression, should pay close attention to any mood and behavior shifts—even relatively minor ones. “For some, depression is much starker in its presentation, and for others, it’s more subtle,” Schroeder explains. Look out for things like a lack of motivation or a change in your eating habits, as well as intrusive dark thoughts, as this could be more severe symptom that should be discussed with a professional right away.
If your symptoms become debilitating and make it difficult for you to get through the day, that’s typically the best way to tell that you may be battling depression rather than momentary sadness or stress resulting from the pandemic.
According to Dr. Wind, one tell-tale symptom of depression might particularly go unnoticed right now: sleeping a lot more than you normally would. “Since there isn’t anything to do, many people chalk [sleeping a lot] up to boredom, when really, it can be a sign of depression,” he explains. While social distancing and working from home can make it tempting to sleep in, pay attention if you notice you really struggle to get out of bed. Insomnia or sleep disturbances are also common symptoms of major depressive disorder, notes the Mayo Clinic, so any changes in your sleep patterns overall can be indicators that something’s going on.
According to Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist who serves on the advisory board for Family Enthusiast, an increase in irritation is also a common depression sign that may escape people’s notice during the pandemic.
“I think many people are experiencing heightened levels of irritation and agitation right now,” Arzt says. “They’re frustrated that they can’t see their loved ones. They’re annoyed that they can’t participate in their normal routines of going to the gym, hitting up the bars, or going to the mall.” But getting mad about minor inconveniences that would not have bothered you previously, especially if you have other symptoms like poor concentration or appetite, typically indicates that there is something greater at play, Arzt says.
The same idea goes for motivation; feeling less ambitious and productive than usual is normal, but take note if you struggle consistently with meeting deadlines or completing daily routines like showering or brushing your teeth. If you can’t find a reason to get up in the morning and things you previously loved are no longer offering you enjoyment, those are huge tip-offs that your malaise is likely turning into depression.
What can you do to feel less depressed?
Fortunately, even in our limited circumstances, there are things you can do to deal with depression as it crops up. The first is to reach out to the people in your life, which will help you feel less alone.
“Although it’s easy to stay connected with friends and family via social media, try scheduling regular video chats with your loved ones,” Dr. Wind says. “Interacting with another person over video provides a better opportunity for meaningful connection than messaging does and will help combat loneliness.” Schroeder adds that having a remote Netflix movie night with friends or a virtual game night with family are both great ways to bond with others right now.
If you’re craving in-person contact, Dr. Yin suggests setting up socially distanced hangouts with friends in your neighborhood. “Sometimes people do window visits with loved ones, which can be particularly endearing and helpful,” she says. “Others have even done hangouts in driveways but without exchanging direct contact, following the 6-foot rule, and limiting the number of people involved. If there are not many people you have an established relationship with that are geographically close, there’s also no shame in taking a walk and waving at a neighbor!”
On that note, Dr. Wind adds that venturing outside every day in a way can do wonders for your mental health. “Nature is known to improve symptoms of depression,” he explains. According to Harvard Health Publishing, research has found that walks outside can prevent rumination and negative self-talk, while promoting a sense of calm. Getting outside, of course, will look different based on where you live and how close you are to parks or other forms of nature, but even a simple walk around the block can make a difference.
Getting involved in new hobbies or activities, like taking a class, can also help you cope with depression. Dr. Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, tells HelloGiggles that now is a good time to foster online connections with classmates, with the increased availability of free and affordable online courses through sites like EdX, Coursea, and Udemy.
“Taking such a course will connect you to a community of learners—others who are also interested in that topic, and that community interacts on discussion forums,” Dr. Joordens explains. “So you can reach out, tell your fellow students about yourself, interact on the forum, and maybe meet some people that you’d like to actually call or have a video chat with. Find people who, like yourself, would really enjoy some social contact each day with someone else who understands what you’re feeling.”
Ultimately, though, connecting with others may not be enough to help you deal with your depression, and professional help may be necessary. “It’s important to reach out to a psychotherapist or other health care provider for psychological support if depressive symptoms last more than two weeks or begin to feel chronic or debilitating,” Dr. Carla Manly, licensed clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend, tells HelloGiggles. “The threshold for each person is different, so it’s vital to know your personal ‘normal’ level of functioning and assess how much your mood and ability to function has been compromised.”
If you’re already working with a therapist or counselor, ask whether remote therapy sessions via video chat are a possibility. You can also look to Psychology Today’s directory to find a therapist who may be covered by your insurance or will offer payment options that work with your financial situation. If talking to someone through an app feels more comfortable to you, Talkspace is an option, and it’s now offering a $65 discount when you sign up. Betterhelp is another counseling app that features plans starting at $40 a week, with the possibility of financial aid.
Depression is a common reaction to the pandemic right now, but you don’t need to suffer alone. Finding new ways to connect with those you love and exploring professional help if needed can guide you through those feelings of loneliness.
If you or anyone you know is dealing with thoughts of suicide, you can reach The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone.