Even Michelle Obama has admitted to experiencing it.


Warning: the below article discusses depression.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: Right now, it can feel really exhausting just to exist. Between the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the current political climate, it's difficult for many of us to feel even slightly hopeful about the future. When there's not a lot to look forward to, it's natural that some unsettling emotions might rise to the surface and cause you to feel more down than usual—and this feeling might actually be low-grade depression.

The topic of low-grade depression recently gained attention when former first lady Michelle Obama revealed she was experiencing it on her podcast, The Michelle Obama Podcast. "I'm waking up in the middle of the night because I'm worrying about something or there's a heaviness. These are not, they are not fulfilling times, spiritually. I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression." Obama said. "I try to make sure I get a workout in, although there have been periods throughout this quarantine, where I just have felt too low."

Don't we know it. Being in a constant state of feeling low is becoming too common amongst Americans as of late. According to data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) in partnership with the Census Bureau that began back in April, out of 42,000 respondents, 42% of them between the ages of 18 to 29 reported feeling signs of anxiety while 36% reported feeling symptoms of depression due to the pandemic.

If you're one of the many people feeling down these days, Dr. Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Coa, a mental health community, wants you to know that what you're experiencing is completely normal.

"So much has changed. So much is uncertain. There is a lot of loss to grieve, and it is perfectly reasonable to have difficult feelings about it," Dr. Anhalt tells HelloGiggles. "All of this is [also] disproportionately affecting marginalized groups whose needs are not being recognized or met by our current society. It makes perfect sense that people are angry and saddened right now by how BIPOC and other marginalized groups are being treated."

With all of these heightened trauma-like situations happening at the same time, it can be hard to even try to figure out what you're dealing with and how to move forward. So to help give insight into living with and managing low-grade depression, we connected with a few mental health experts.

What is low-grade depression?

First things first, it's important to clarify that low-grade depression is not a formal clinical diagnosis per the DSM-5 (the manual used by health professionals to diagnose mental health disorders). It's a more casual term that's used to help describe the lower levels of depressive-like feelings. "Even minor depression can have both mental and physical effects," Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist, tells HelloGiggles. "From a mental health perspective, low-grade depression is a mental health condition that often involves a sense of sadness, gloominess, or despair."

In comparison, depression is a clinical diagnosis one receives from their mental health professional. To be considered depressed, a doctor must conduct a series of physical tests and ask a list of standard questions to screen for it. According to Healthline, to be diagnosed with depression (not low-grade depression), you must have four to five of the physical symptoms of it for at least two weeks or more. While this is one of the main differing factors between depression and low-grade depression, according to Harvard Health, low-grade depression can consistently last for up to five years, whereas depression usually comes in short episodes throughout spans of time.

Low-grade depression is not dysthymia (also known as persistent depressive disorder), however, which is a chronic mental health condition involving persistent, mild depression, says Dr. Manly. According to Psychology Today, dysthymia is a "serious and disabling disorder that shares many symptoms with other forms of clinical depression." Basically, dysthymia is a less severe, but a chronic form of depression, whereas low-grade depression isn't chronic.

What are the symptoms of low-grade depression?

According to Dr. Anhalt, low-grade depression symptoms can look and feel different for everyone. However, the most "common symptoms include fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, persistent sadness, sleep problems, low energy, reduced motivation, trouble concentrating, and anhedonia (lack of pleasure and enjoyment)," she says. Dr. Manly adds that another sign is when people report they “do not quite feel like themselves,” especially if they're known to usually have a positive, upbeat, or general normal mood. "In a sense, low-grade depression can feel as if an unfamiliar, dreary, gray storm cloud is lurking over one’s head," she says.

But keep in mind, it might be hard to realize you may have low-grade depression from the start, because there might not be an easily identifiable cause. "For example, if one is suffering from low-grade depression after a break-up, the mind understands and rationalizes the depression," says Dr. Manly. This means that your body will justify what you're feeling and make you believe you should be feeling this way. And this is especially true when it comes to having these feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic. "People’s moods tend to become low due to a combination of factors such as a loss of normal daily routine, inflammatory news reports, doom-scrolling, worry about finances, fear of contracting the virus, angst over social distancing issues, and a disruption in personal relationships," Dr. Manly explains.

One of the ways you can begin to identify low-grade depression is by "keeping track of whether or not your energy levels, ability to focus, and sleep patterns are more problematic than usual so that you can identify feelings and patterns," says Dr. Anhalt. "Low-level depression can mess with relationships because if we don’t realize we’re grappling with depressed feelings, we might think the problem is the circumstances of our lives and that can cause misdirected issues."

How can someone manage their low-grade depression?

Because low-grade depression can be hard to identify, according to Dr. Manly, it's important to check-in with a medical or mental health professional if you feel like something is off. "I highly recommend therapy. Having a safe space to explore your feelings and to have another person reflect what’s reality and what might be the depression talking is really helpful," says Dr. Anhalt. "This is also a place where you can explore if your feelings are realistic reactions to things you’re experiencing, or if you’re stuck and really struggling, and need extra support (like medication)."

However, if therapy is not an option for you at this time, Dr. Manly suggests doing the below to help heal:

  • "Free associate or outline in a journal all the things that are bothering you or causing you to worry; putting one’s thoughts on paper provides objectivity and clarity. As a result, the psyche says, 'I feel so much light after unpacking all that internal chaos.'"
  • "In the same way, venting to a trusted friend or relative (and letting them vent in return) can be bonding while it also provides mental and emotional distance from life’s unsettling irritations."
  • "Humor is one of the most cathartic tools for relieving low-grade depression. Whether you watch a rom-com, laugh with family via video chat, or play laugh-inducing virtual games with friends, humor goes a long way to relieving depression."
  • "Get outside! Research shows that a brief walk outside—ideally when the sun is shining—is sufficient to boost mood for several hours."
  • "Do your best to keep to a routine that feels healthy and affirming to you. When so much is out of one’s control (as is the case with COVID-19), having a go-to routine can be stress-reducing and mood-boosting. From waking up and going to sleep at a set time to having specific exercise times and days, routinely offers a sense of positive stability in these very uncertain times."

At the end of the day, low-grade depression is a mental health situation that many of us are dealing with and that you shouldn't shame yourself for feeling. While the pandemic will hopefully not last forever, this is a good time to get more in touch with yourself and your emotions to begin your journey with healing.

If you or someone you care about is struggling and experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone who can help. You can also chat with a counselor online here. All services are free and available 24/7. Additionally, here are ways you can help loved ones struggling with depression.