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Dealing with Pandemic Depression

September 29, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on many people's health, including their mental health. A survey by the National Center for Health Statistics shows nearly 30% of people are experiencing symptoms of clinical depression, compared to 6% at the same time last year. In addition, the survey showed that 36% of people are feeling more anxious about life right now compared to 8% last year.

Greg Nawalanic, Psy-D, clinical director of psychology services at The University of Kansas Health System Strawberry Hill Campus, explains why depression has increased, what the symptoms are and why it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider if you or a loved one are experiencing signs of depression.

  • People struggle to adapt to change. COVID-19 has caused drastic changes with no period of preparation, so its impact was sharp and harsh. People made peace with the idea that these changes were temporary, and most aligned with the notion that their changes were an active response to defeat the threat of the virus.

    As the perspective has shifted to a "new normal," there has been a significant uptick in depression as people look at the world around them and realize that it may be years before they can return to the lives they once knew and loved. Additionally, COVID-19 restrictions can trigger depressive symptoms of disengagement, isolation, restricted activity, reduction of enjoyment of formerly pleasant activities and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

  • The most common symptoms include:

    • Prevalent feelings of sadness
    • Avoidance of enjoyable activities
    • Significant changes in sleep (sleeping more or less than normal) and diet (eating more or less)
    • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • The first and easiest thing to do is start a conversation. Reach out to them and ask them how they're feeling, reflect on what you've seen that has raised your concern and offer them your support and help. If their behavior is more serious, ask about suicidal thoughts. It's important to take that next step and reassure the individual that you value them in your life. If they acknowledge suicidal thoughts, take the next steps by asking if they have a plan and if they intend to act on it. If they answer affirmatively to any of these 3 areas, encourage them to reach out to a mental health professional for help, or let them know that you will connect them with a professional. There are a staggering number of resources available, but they are all useless if they are not accessed. If there is an imminent threat of suicide, call 911 and sit with them until someone arrives to assess and transport them to emergency care.

  • Depression is a self-feeding animal, meaning that it shapes the way someone sees the world. It diminishes compliments, magnifies shortcomings, minimizes accomplishments, makes it hard to see the positive side of things and convinces you that passive avoidance is the best answer to problems and plans. If unrecognized or left untreated, it can eventually spiral down to suicidal thoughts.

    Therefore, the best ways to combat depression include:

    • Engaging friends and family in conversation, even if it’s over an online platform.
    • Making time for exercise. Just 10 minutes of brisk walking a day can make a big difference.
    • Meditating in the morning and evening before bed. Setting a positive intention for the day in the morning and nonjudgmentally reflecting on the day in the evening is encouraged.
    • Getting into a sleep routine to ensure that you are getting 6-8 hours per night.
    • Eating healthy foods and restricting the use of substances to cope.

    Additionally, it’s important to remain mindfully aware of negative thoughts and challenge them as they occur. Though distance is encouraged now, isolation is not. Maintain safe engagement with your support system at all costs.

  • Anxiety can be defined as excessive and frequently unwarranted fear or nervousness that serves to disrupt your engagement and/or enjoyment in a wide range of activities. Depression, in contrast, is an excessive and unwarranted sense of overwhelming gloom and sadness characterized by an increasing sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

    They are so often linked because as anxiety increases, so does its influence on an individual’s social and occupational life. The individual can begin to feel sad about the observable decline in their enjoyment of life. The sadness can begin to increase to the point where the person feels hopeless about their future and utterly helpless about how to do anything to improve the situation. That’s why it can be so beneficial to reach out to friends and family as soon as someone notices a significant shift in their mood. And don’t be afraid to reach out to a licensed mental health professional for help. Our emotions are excellent at alerting us to the need for change, but both anxiety and depression are extremely self-perpetuating. The sooner we can interrupt their cycle and change direction, the better the prognosis.

    If you’ve noticed a change in your mental health during COVID-19, it’s important to talk to your primary care provider about a treatment plan to help you manage your symptoms.

Woman looking out window

Managing anxiety during a time of crisis

Times of uncertainty can trigger feelings of anxiousness, concern and confusion. Greg Nawalanic, PsyD, clinical director of psychology services at The University of Kansas Health System Strawberry Hill Campus, shares ways of reducing anxiety and improving mental health.

Helpful strategies

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