I’m a longtime grief counselor and educator, and as you might expect, I talk to lots of people about all kinds of life losses. In recent months I’m hearing that COVID-19 has become a daunting challenge for just about everyone. Not only have stay-at-home and work-at-home protocols isolated people physically and socially, but the uncertainty of illness, financial jeopardy, and an unforeseeable future are making it hard for many to cope.
Essentially, people are grieving. Anxiety and depression, especially—which are normal, necessary grief responses—are epidemic. While grief is absolutely natural in the face of these unprecedented circumstances and daily losses, it’s also something that demands compassionate, proactive care.
If you’ve found yourself struggling with anxiety and/or depression lately, you’re not alone. Many millions of your friends and neighbors are, too. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, fully one-third of Americans are now experiencing clinical depression and anxiety. The good news is that if we work on our mental health, collectively and individually, we can use this difficult time to learn how to nurture our mental wellness as well as each other.
Anxiety and COVID
Anxiety is fear and worry that become pervasive and out of proportion. It’s a normal reaction to danger, which is how our minds and bodies may interpret the losses, risks, and uncertainties of the pandemic. Common symptoms include:
- Nervousness, restlessness, or jumpiness
- Trouble concentrating/being distracted by worry or intrusive thoughts
- Difficulty sleeping
- Physical discomforts such as fast heart rate, rapid breathing, dizziness, gastrointestinal problems, or trembling
- Anxiety attacks (also called panic attacks)
If you’ve experienced anxiety in the past, your anxiety may be worse now. And if you’ve never been an anxious person before, you may find yourself tugged at by anxiety now. If your anxiety is preventing you from going about your daily life or is having a significant impact on your quality of life, it’s time to take action.
Depression and COVID
Depression is a common mood disorder characterized by feelings of sadness as well as emptiness, irritability, low self-esteem, and pessimism. It affects how you think, feel, and live your life. Clinical depression is a more severe form of depression that persists and makes it hard or impossible to function in daily life.
Common symptoms include:
- Feelings of apathy, guilt, hopelessness, sadness, or discontent
- Mood swings
- Poor sleep
- Appetite changes (eating too much or too little)
- Difficulty mustering the energy to accomplish routine tasks or take part in activities
Anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand, but the two can be separate. And as with anxiety, any preexisting depression may be worse now, or due to the unprecedented circumstances, you may be struggling with depression for the first time. Feeling depressed is understandable during the pandemic, but you can take steps to ease your depression and improve your quality of life, even in the midst of COVID-19.
Managing Anxiety and Depression
There’s no one right way to effectively manage anxiety and depression. You’ll find that some measures work for you and some don’t. But I encourage you to try a number of the following tips. Finding a way out of anxiety and depression is often like climbing a ladder. If you find something that helps you make it to the first rung, you’ll be in a position to climb to that second rung, and so on.
Follow a daily schedule. The coronavirus life has thrown our schedules into disarray. Part of the reason you may feel at loose ends is because you no longer have a daily structure or routine. But you can make one anew! Try getting up at the same time each day, eating scheduled meals, bathing regularly, and going for short walks at set intervals. You’ll find that a routine will create a scaffold that helps you feel more in control and well.
Prioritize sleep. If you haven’t been sleeping well for seven to nine hours a night, this should be your number one priority. Poor sleep exacerbates anxiety and depression, while the right amount of good-quality sleep is practically a miracle cure. Read up on sleep hygiene and follow best practices for creating a good sleeping environment, such as turning off electronics at least an hour before bed and using your bedroom only for sleep. If you’re still having trouble sleeping, see your healthcare provider. They can help you assess your particular sleep problems and fix them.
Connect with other people. COVID-19 social distancing has been difficult for most of us, and especially if you are at higher risk, this distancing may have to continue for a long while. Yet connecting with others is still important. Make it a priority to talk to at least one person outside your household each day. Video calls are the best substitute for in-person visits. In fact, because many people now have more free time than they normally do, you might find it easier to catch up with old friends, relatives, and neighbors. In some ways, it’s an unusually opportune time to strengthen relationships. And it’s also a good time to help others. Reach out to someone who might need a little help and see what happens.
Do something. Make a pact with yourself to stand up and do something. Whenever you find yourself ruminating on depressing or fearful thoughts, simply stand and move your body for five minutes. You can do whatever you want for those five minutes as long as you are physically in motion. For example, get a drink of water, check your mailbox, throw in a load of laundry, do a few lunges or push-ups, or dance.
Breathe deeply. Simply focusing on your breath and breathing in to the count of five then out to the count of five has the power to instantly banish bad thoughts and relax your body. It’s such a simple technique, but it works.
Kick the habit. Did you know that nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine can all make anxiety worse? These habits may feel comforting during a time of anxiety and depression, but the truth is that they are likely contributing to your anxiety and depression. Try gradually cutting back, and if you need help to quit, get it.
Clear the clutter. You’ve probably been spending more time at home, and a cluttered home is stressful environment. Ask an organized friend or family member to help you clean up and declutter. Your home can be an oasis of calm and clarity.
Foster hope and joy. What makes you feel hopeful and joyful? Whatever it is for you, schedule at least a bit of it into each and every day. And if you’re having a hard time mustering hope and joy, you can borrow it from someone else. Call a bubbly friend, watch a silly movie, or read an inspiring memoir.
See a therapist. COVID-19 has expedited the transition to telemedicine. Counselors are now caring for clients over the phone or on Zoom. Many people have told me they’ve found it less daunting and more convenient to “meet with” a therapist online. And many have expressed surprise to me at how much it’s helping. It’s normal and necessary self-care, and it can help you too.
Make a wellness jar. Use small slips of paper to write down things that make you feel calm, loved, or happy, one per slip. Examples might be: Take a bath. Shoot baskets at the park. Bake cookies. Cuddle with ________. Fold up the pieces of paper and place them in a jar. Whenever you’re feeling anxious or depressed, randomly select a slip of paper and follow the idea you unfold.
If you need immediate help with anxiety or depression, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) helpline at 1-800-662-4357.
What a uniquely challenging time this is. If you are struggling with anxiety and/or depression during COVID-19, I want you to know that I empathize with you, and I see you. I also know that if we are proactive right now in working on our own wellness as well as helping others, we can emerge from this pandemic, as individuals and as a society, better equipped to live well and love well.
About the Author
Founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, Dr. Alan Wolfelt has been recognized as one of North America’s leading death educators and grief counselors. His books have sold more than a million copies worldwide and have been translated into many languages. Dr. Wolfelt speaks on grief-related topics, offers trainings for caregivers, and has written many bestselling books and other resources on grief for both caregivers and grieving people. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more.