COVID-19 blues vs. depression: How to tell the difference
Now that we’re several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are feeling the emotional toll of the uncertainty, worry and dramatic changes to our habits and our lives.
“While it’s normal to have frequent thoughts of COVID-19, be mindful if these thoughts become more frequent, or start to impact your daily life,” says Catherine Powers-James, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in our Integrative Medicine Center.
Here, she shares how to recognize and cope with COVID-related mood changes -- and when to seek professional help for a more serious mental health condition.
Recognizing symptoms of COVID-19 blues
Everyone’s symptoms will be different, Powers-James says, but there are a few common ones to watch for.
If you’re generally not feeling like yourself, that may be one of the first signs you’re experiencing the blues. “You may find you don’t enjoy things as much as you used to,” Powers-James says.
Other common symptoms include:
feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
feelings of restlessness
anger or irritability more than normal
withdrawing from things you used to enjoy
avoiding talking to friends and family
changes in sleep (sleeping too much or not enough)
thoughts about harming yourself
changes in appetite or weight (more or less)
“Because of COVID-19 restrictions, we’re limited on a lot of the things we used to be able to do to bring us joy,” Powers-James says. “So any self-imposed restrictions could be a sign of something more serious.”
Pay attention to how long symptoms last
Symptoms of the blues can often be the same as those of depression or anxiety, Powers-James says. The difference is how long these feelings last.
“The blues can come and go in waves, but a major depressive episode lasts at least two weeks,” Powers-James says. “If you’re constantly distracted from your normal roles, like work or family life, that can be a sign of something more serious.”
And don’t write off depressive symptoms just because you or a loved one have occasional moments of happiness or joy. “Being in a depressive episode doesn't mean you can't experience moments of happiness,” Powers-James says. “But if you’re feeling sad, angry or anxious most of the time, you may need to seek professional help.”
Powers-James adds that people who’ve experienced clinical depression in the past are more likely to experience it in the future. So, it’s important to be aware of symptoms and seek help from a mental health professional if you notice you or a loved one is in a depressive episode.
Do the opposite of what your body tells you
Although it may be hard, sometimes the best thing to get yourself out of a depressive episode is to do the opposite of what your body is telling you to do. “When you’re depressed, your body is telling you to do everything you can to stay in a depression,” says Powers-James.
For example, your depression may tell you to avoid something you once enjoyed, like getting out of bed to go for a walk. “Once you’re actually doing it, you’ll probably find it wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be,” Powers-James says.
Seek help to manage mental health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic
Cognitive behavioral therapy or talking to a counselor or psychiatrist can help, but what works for one person may not work for another. “If you’ve experienced depression in the past, you may look back to things that worked for you then,” Powers-James says
The important thing is to seek help if you think you need it, and remember that others may be feeling the same way. “You don’t have to go through this alone,” Powers-James says.
She suggests thinking about the things that made you feel better before the COVID-19 pandemic. Getting outdoors, talking with a loved one and exercise are options for most of us right now, without having to worry about social distancing.
Virtual support is available to help you cope during the COVID-19 pandemic
Many of the traditional interventions available for mood disorders have gone virtual, Powers-James says. Look into telemedicine visits with your mental health care provider.
Yoga, meditation and massage have also been shown to improve mood. “At MD Anderson, our mind and body intervention specialists are offering virtual yoga sessions, and on-site massage with precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Powers-James says.
While we don’t know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, Powers-James says you can overcome feelings of depression or anxiety. It’s even possible to achieve remission from these mental health conditions. As Powers-James says, “Be patient, and trust that things will get better.”