How coronavirus is making people feel less depressed

Catriona Harvey-Jenner
Photo credit: baona - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

The coronavirus crisis is troubling in many ways; not least for our mental health. Our lives have a newfound smallness, an unprecedented monotony. And as the bad news floods in daily, with little to do to distract ourselves, levels of anxiety and stress are on the rise. It can be hard to remain rational or positive.

But for some people the pandemic has exposed a small glimmer of hope, in the form of a gentle easing of their mental health. With depression particularly, several women Cosmopolitan spoke to revealed they have noticed a marked improvement in their low mood over the past few weeks. So why is it, in bleak times such as this, that there could be such an unexpected silver lining?

"When all of this started, I worried so much about my mental health, but actually, I've found myself to be fairly calm amongst the chaos," 26-year-old Jasmine, a Digital PR Consultant from Bedford, shares.

Jasmine has suffered with depression since she was 15, although she's managed to remain 'high functioning' (a term she doesn't particularly like) throughout much of her adult life. "Most people would see me as a confident, outgoing 26-year-old," she says. Inside, however, she has struggled with feelings of low mood, self doubt, and crippling worries about family and money.

When the coronavirus pandemic began to tighten its grip in the UK, becoming a serious threat close to home, Jasmine feared how it might impact her mental health. But to her pleasant surprise, she has felt more of a sense of ease than normal.

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And it seems Jasmine might not be the only one. According to Google Trends, there's been a sharp downturn in concern about depression symptoms over the past few weeks in the UK. A quick look at the search data for the terms 'depressed' and 'depression' clearly indicates a steep drop in both over the past few weeks. During the last week of March, the number of people googling the term 'depressed' was almost half that of the month before. The data for the term 'depression' paints a similar picture.

That isn't to say we can declare with certainty and celebration that depression symptoms are down as coronavirus cases are on the up. As Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy, points out: "At a time when there is something that is so consuming of our minds - such as a world pandemic - people are likely to be more preoccupied with their physical health than their mental health. I would say that there are probably less searches around depression probably because our focus is simply elsewhere."

It's very likely that some people are just googling coronavirus symptoms instead of depression ones, hence the drop. But it's also true that there are others - like Jasmine - who have noticed a considerable improvement to their depression since the health crisis unfolded.

"I guess because a global pandemic is actually something to feel depressed about, I don't feel guilty or stupid about my feelings for the first time in a long time," Jasmine explains. "It's almost like the whole world is feeling the way I feel when something minor happens - like if I'm not invited to an event with friends - but now we're all feeling that way about something that actually deserves worry."

This is a rationale that Chartered Psychologist Dr Rachel Allan says is quite understandable. "The experience of feeling depressed can be worsened by secondary feelings of guilt or shame about feeling that way, especially if life looks 'good' from the outside for that person," she explains. "When we feel we have a good reason for feeling low, we may be less likely to judge ourselves for how we feel."

During the COVID-19 crisis unprecedented levels of fear have been presented to the whole world, so it's totally acceptable to feel down, or worried, or stressed. And that's a message mental health professionals are eager to remind us of - because we don't need the guilt of feeling bad as an extra load to carry.

"Experts, quite rightly, seek to normalise feelings of distress, fear and sadness around what is happening, because these are completely natural responses in light of what is going on. Normalising distress can reduce some of those secondary emotions that go with feeling low," advises Dr Allan.

One of the things about depression is that it can make people feel isolated. But as coronavirus has become an experience shared by everyone - panic, despair and all - a newfound sense of community has arisen. And it's this that has proven beneficial for mental health.

"I often feel quite alone in my depression because it's all related to my personal circumstances and brain chemistry," Fiona Thomas, a 33-year-old writer and author of Depression in a Digital Age, admits. "But now everyone is living this somewhat shared experience, and we all feel sad and anxious on some level. I think, in a weird way, this has levelled the playing field and built an instant sense of understanding between everyone."

This is a completely normal thought process for anyone who has a tendency for low moods, according to Dr Allan. "Feeling low is often accompanied by a sense that, while we are struggling, everyone else is out there living life to the full and having a great time. This illusion is reinforced by things like advertising, and the filtered pictures of their lives people post on social media," the psychologist says.

"A pandemic affects us all; we are all feeling vulnerable and exposed, regardless of how much good we have in our lives. When we feel low, we are drawn to making negative comparisons between our own lives and lives of others. But when we are all vulnerable, we are more likely to see our shared humanity," Dr Allan explains.

For Fiona, having the shared experience of the pandemic has led to an increase in two-way emotional support. "I can offer reassurance to others and they have done the same for me. I guess I feel a constant emotional support coming from my friends and family which has really boosted my mood," she shares.

Ana Falcon, another Cosmopolitan reader, says her depression has felt lighter in recent weeks because the pandemic has allowed her to reflect on the harsh way she's been treating herself all this time by being in a permanent state of crisis. "My brain works in crisis mode all the time," she says. Seeing other people in anguish has helped Ana to recognise her "own negative emotions", and has given her the perspective to go a bit easier on herself.

"The coronavirus crisis has taught me something major: It's allowed me to see the deepness of my own pain," Ana shares. "Although it is a bad time for the world, I do see the light at the end of the tunnel. And if there is a light for the world, then there is light for my depression, too."

Photo credit: Michael Hulchanski / EyeEm - Getty Images

Gaining this kind of understanding into your own thought cycles and emotional patterns is invaluable in working your way out of them, says psychologist Dr Allan.

"When we are depressed, we get easily caught up in negative thought patterns, and can become negatively focused on negative thoughts about ourselves. This painful cycle can be broken if we can find a way to have some compassion for ourselves and our suffering. Compassion, and being gentle with ourselves, is a powerful antidote to self-criticism and shame," she explains.

Mental health is a complex thing, and is as unique to each individual as their fingerprint. Which is precisely why other people are reporting feeling demonstrably worse during the coronavirus lockdown - not better.

"My depression has got worse," shares Laura Wilson, 25. "I have always felt anxious about uncertainty, and of course this is one of the most uncertain times for all of us. We don’t know what’s going to happen or when this will be over, and things are changing every day." If she stays off of social media and stops reading so many news articles, Laura says manages to distract herself from feeling so low, but if she falls back into that pattern it triggers those same feelings for her.

And if you are one of the people whose depression is feeling darker during this time, there's absolutely nothing wrong with you, reminds the doctor. "It is entirely natural to feel low, sad, anxious and fearful at the moment. We are facing threatening and uncertain times, and dealing with significant limitations on things we may usually take for granted like our health, our freedom, and our physical relationships," reassures Dr Allan.

Photo credit: CosmopolitanUK

There are things you can do to improve your mental health, however. Things that, hopefully, won't feel like a mountain to climb.

"Small daily practices are key to maintaining good mental health in these circumstances. Things like keeping a sensible routine, getting up in the morning, setting goals for the day, doing some form of exercise and finding a way to connect with loved ones are small but important things we can do to manage mental health in this scenario," advises the psychologist.

"It is also important to recognise that heightened anxiety, panic and sadness is entirely normal, and will pass in time." Make sure you keep that part fixed in your mind as firmly as you can: this will pass in time.

If you're struggling with depression and need someone to talk to, call Samaritans freephone on 116 123 or visit the Mind website for help and advice.

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