The low mood, the lack of energy, the excessive feelings of guilt, shame, or hopelessness that come with depression can easily drive a person to withdraw from social interactions. The isolation, in turn, keeps positive experiences at a distance and worsens the depressive state.
As you probably know, breaking a depressive spiral by doing the things you have avoided for some time is a big challenge. Under normal circumstances.
But what happens when not only depression itself keeps you from seeing your friends, but an unpredictable virus forces you to stay at home and avoid socializing? How can you protect your mental health under such extreme circumstances? Is it possible to prevent or even treat depression during a covid-19 lockdown?
The challenge of social isolation and depression
Before we go on to discuss what you can do to minimize the effect of social isolation on your mental health, I just want to remind you about something. This is something you already know, but sometimes it’s easy to forget. Covid-19 is a big deal. And social isolation is a challenge for the human mind.
We are made to live in a flock, not alone. And we prefer freedom, not captivity. And we like financial and psychological security, not months and months of uncertainty. So don’t be too hard on yourself during this period. In fact, don’t be hard at all. Go easy on yourself. Give yourself a break. Give yourself some well-earned credit for trying to cope with this odd situation best you can.
Okay, so covid-19 and the isolation that comes with it pose a lot of stress on the freedom-, security- and flock-loving human mind. The mental challenge is extra tough on those who suffer from depression and anxiety. When going through depression, having coffee with a friend can feel as challenging as mountain climbing – and that’s without a virus keeping us from leaving the house. So, depression makes social isolation twice (or a hundred times) as challenging.
Do covid-19 lockdowns cause depression?
Social isolation can exacerbate depressive symptoms and trigger depression, especially in people who have a vulnerability. Research studies from China, the US and several European countries report an increase in depression during the covid-19 lockdowns in the spring of 2020.
American researchers found that depressive symptoms increased more than 3-fold during the spring of 2020 in the US, from 8.5% before covid-19 to 27.8% during covid-19. They analyzed the data in april 2020, so it’s reasonable to assume that depression has increased even more since then. They also found a clear connection between depression and stressors (such as job loss) and having lower economic resources (meaning having less than $5000 in savings). (Go to article)
This is not exactly surprising, right? But still very important to consider. The depression that comes with covid-19 disproportionately affects people who are already at increased risk of depression.
The next section includes 8 strategies (of which 7 are completely free) to help you deal with depression during a covid-19 lockdown.
Dealing with depression during covid-19 lockdown
There are many things you can do at home to minimize the negative effects of social distancing on your mental health. Below you’ll find 8 strategies to help you prevent depression and keep depressive symptoms from worsening. Remember to take extra good care of yourself during this difficult time.
Learn about behavioural activation
Behavioural activation is the golden standard when it comes to psychological depression treatment. It means that you step-by-step start engaging in important activities, which in time alleviates your depressive symptoms. A big part of the treatment is to (gently) push yourself to go out and do things, for example, meeting friends or taking a class, even though you don’t feel up for it.
This video explains how to stop a depressive cycle with behavioural activation:
So, encouraging yourself to do meaningful things (even though you don’t feel like doing them) can have a significant impact on your symptoms. But how are we supposed to do this during lockdown and social distancing? We can’t go out and meet friends or engage with the world as usual. Because of the pandemic, our worlds have shrunk.
However, we can create mini-worlds in our isolated state. It’s enough to create some novelty inside your apartment. Small things like:
- choosing a different magazine than usual,
- trying a new yoga pose
- or a new flavour of tea,
- rearranging your furniture,
- listening to a new music genre
- or learning a new song on your old guitar
release a little dopamine inside your novelty-loving brain. So, do what you can to feed your brain with new impressions. It’s like the mini-version of behavioural activation and the results are important, especially for stopping an already existing depression from worsening.
Watch out for toxic positivity
What is toxic productivity and how do you stay away from it during covid-19? Well, toxic productivity basically refers to an obsession with improving yourself above all else. The tricky thing about toxic productivity is that no matter how productive you are, you’re always left with a feeling of guilt and the thought that you should have done more. That’s what makes it toxic.
And the media (especially the social media) is quick to feed the toxic fire. We are constantly reminded about how to best spend our days, how to make use of the time in lockdown and how much others are accomplishing while we’re lying on the sofa. We are practically bombarded with messages and ads telling us to measure our self-worth based on how productive we are.
We are consciously and unconsciously pressured to be a certain way, to look a certain way and to do certain things. Right?
Here’s how you recognize toxic productivity:
- When your workload is harming your health or your relationships, you may have a problem with toxic productivity. For example, working so hard that you never have time to see your friends or your partner(s). Or skipping lunch, toilet breaks, rest or sleep because of all the tasks you want to get done.
- Another feature of toxic productivity is the experience of never being enough. You set unrealistic expectations for yourself (probably much higher than you would expect from anyone else) and that leaves you with a constant feeling of failure, not because you actually failed, but because of the unrealistic goals you had in mind.
- Toxic productivity usually comes with a big bag of restlessness. When it’s finally time to rest, people with toxic productivity find it hard to relax. It’s as if they always feel this pressure to do stuff.
So, how do you cope with toxic productivity during covid-19 lockdown?
Well, first of all, remind yourself that you’re human. (If you’re carrying a bad case of toxic productivity, something deep inside of you will probably resist that thought, but it’s true.) You are human and you’re enough as you are. You don’t have to accomplish a number of tasks to have value.
Also, remind yourself that social isolation is tough on the human mind. Not writing a novel or not learning a language while in lockdown doesn’t make you a failure. Go easy on the self-criticism. It’s not a productivity contest.
Another thing that will help you manage toxic productivity is the notion that self-care is a non-optional need to function properly. Sleeping, resting, eating and doing things just for the joy of it is not an indulgence. It’s absolutely necessary to have physical and mental health.
Now, answer this question:
What can you do every day to take care of your health, no matter how busy or restless you feel?
Setting aside a few minutes for meditation, taking a bath, sleeping for a few extra minutes, reading a few pages in your favourite book… It can be anything. But watch out for being too harsh or unrealistic. Choose your self-care with compassion. It will remind you that your health comes first.
Connect with people
I know that Skype-people are not as good as the analogue version of your friends and family, but MUCH better than nothing. If you live by yourself, try to have at least one face-to-face conversation online every day. Remember that video calls are better than audio and audio is better than just texting.
If you want, you can try to integrate video calls into your everyday life, creating the feeling that your long-distance friends and family are a part of your daily routine. It doesn’t always have to be a designated phone call, you can connect online in a more relaxed way. For example, put your computer in the kitchen while making dinner. Or put your computer on the floor as you’re playing with your kids. This way your online-family becomes a part of daily habits.
Move your body
Regular exercise is probably the most potent natural treatment for depression and anxiety. 30-40 minute workouts 3-4 times a week are as effective as psychotherapy or antidepressants. So, if you’re looking for a way to spend your time in lockdown, moving your body is by far the best. There is just that problem of actually getting yourself to do it. Right?
Motivation can be a big problem when you’re stuck at home. A way to make exercise easier is to sign up for a live online class. You’re expected to exercise at a certain time every week and your instructor will miss you if you don’t show up. You can also book a Zoom-meeting or Google-hangout with your friends or family to exercise together.
This article gives you what you need to create a regular exercise routine: All you need to know about exercise and depression – How to build a treatment routine that lasts
Another issue can be limited space. In this case you need to be creative. Plan beforehand which movements you can do without hitting your head on the doorposts. Use jumping ropes, do squats or lift heavy stuff in your apartment. Yoga is another option because every movement is usually confined to your mat. Maybe this is the time to try Acroyoga with your roommates?
Or, if you’re not into bending and such, regular walks are perfect for taking care of your mental health. If you have the possibility to go outside, there are many benefits to walking in nature. When taking a walk in the forest or by the sea, your mind receives the benefits of exercise as well as the benefits of nature.
Avoid emotional eating and the "western" diet
A UK study showed a connection between covid-19 lockdown and emotional eating. The stress of social isolation makes people overeat. According to the study, this was especially common in people with psychiatric disorders or weight problems.
So, overeating is a popular coping mechanism during lockdown. It’s not so strange, is it? People are more anxious and they spend more time at home – closer to the fridge. And let’s agree that the convenience of having full-time access, poses an extra challenge to our ability to control ourselves near that tempting cabinet.
The problem is that fatty snacks with high sugar content and the traditional ‘Western’ diet increases inflammation in the body. And what does increased inflammation lead to? That’s right, more depressive symptoms and anxiety.
Watching your eating habits during this difficult time, not only helps you with weight control, but protects you from depression and anxiety.
The following article tells you more about the Western diet and includes a free recipe for an antidepressant diet: An easily digested guide to diet and depression – how to eat your way out of depression
And this depression app will show you how to build new, antidepressant habits, including healthy eating habits: Get the app for free.
Stay away from the news
Or at least limit the time you’re spending on pandemic-related news. A Chinese study found that depression and anxiety was associated with spending one hour or more every day watching covid-19 updates. Of course, this study doesn’t tell us if the news actually caused more depression and anxiety. Perhaps people with depression and anxiety were more likely to watch pandemic-related news.
However, watching or reading an endless stream of alarming content will inevitably activate the alarm system in your body. So, make sure not to spend too much time following the news channels. A few minutes a day is enough.
There is a growing body of evidence showing that going to therapy online can be as effective as visiting your therapist face to face. Therapy via video can help you get through this challenging time and provide you with important psychological tools for dealing with depression.
My Online Therapy offers face-to-face sessions with highly qualified psychologists.
Keep a regular schedule
In times of uncertainty, it can be psychologically beneficial to shower your daily life with as much stability as possible. Sticking to your schedule can prevent depressive symptoms from worsening.
Try to keep to a regular routine as best you can, for example by:
- Waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Cooking and eating at the same time every day.
- Taking a walk every morning or evening (if possible).
- Calling your best friend or favourite family member every day.
- Sign up for live online classes that require your attention at the same time every week.
Even though social distancing during the covid-19 pandemic negatively affects mental health, there are things we can do at home to prevent depression and to keep depressive symptoms from worsening:
- Try the mini-version of behavioural activation by giving your brain new experiences, such as a new flavour of tea or a new magazine.
- Watch out for toxic productivity – an obsession with improving yourself above all else – by spending extra time taking care of your basic needs.
- Connect with people online. Try to have at least one face-to-face conversation every day. Video calls are better than audio and audio is better than just texting.
- Move your body. Preferably in nature. This article will help you get started: All you need to know about exercise and depression – how to build a treatment routine that lasts.
- Avoid emotional eating and the traditional Western diet. This article includes a free recipe for an anti-inflammatory, antidepressant diet: An easily digested guide to diet and depression – how to eat your way out of depression.
- Make sure not to spend too much time following the news channels. A few minutes a day is enough.
- Try telehealth therapy, for example via My Online Therapy.
- Keep a regular schedule as best you can. In times of uncertainty, it’s psychologically beneficial to shower your daily life with as much stability as possible. If you want a virtual therapist to guide you towards improved sleep, diet, exercise and regular meditation, download the free depression app from Flow Neuroscience here.
Thank you for your attention!