Misery has plenty of company these days. According to a new study in JAMA Network Open, the prevalence of depression symptoms in adults is more than three times higher during the pandemic than before. Symptoms include…*

  • Feeling sad, down or “blue”
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping 10 or more hours a day)
  • Changes in appetite, from hardly eating to eating too much
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Guilt and a sense of worthlessness
  • Loss of interest in people and activities you’ve enjoyed
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Feeling sluggish or restless
  • Feeling life isn’t worth living—and even thinking of or attempting suicide.

THE PANDEMIC BLUES

There are people who question whether the worst part of coronavirus has been the virus itself…or the economic and emotional toll it has taken on all of us. In some ways, the pandemic seems like it was designed by an evil villain to create a depression epidemic. Start with the stress and uncertainty of the sickness itself. Then take away employment, enjoyable activities and family and friends. Add in fear and discomfort around your neighbors and fellow citizens…confusion in news reports. And make sure there’s no foreseeable end to these disruptions.

At first, one or more symptoms of depression might be barely noticeable, with the symptoms intensifying a little day by day and some days better than others. You may make excuses for intermittent sleep problems or cloudy thinking. Then one day, when you’re feeling really blue, you realize, I guess this pandemic is actually getting to me.

It’s easier to prevent or reverse mild depression than it is to pull yourself out of moderate or severe depression. Start today with small, practical steps. 

BEATING THE BLUES

If you’re feeling low, the best place to start is with lifestyle factors that can reanimate and energize your body.

Sleep deeper. When you sleep poorly, you’re more likely to become depressed…and when you’re depressed, you sleep poorly. A must for sleeping deeply is maintaining a consistent wake-sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm. Pick a wake-up time and count backward the number of hours (ideally seven to eight) you want to sleep. If your wake-up time is 7:00 am, your bedtime is between 11:00 pm and 12:00 am. 

Sleep is a unique gift of rest between the day behind you and the day ahead, allowing your body to perform its ­“service update.” It’s a time for you to trust in the experience of being in bed and to let go of doing, worrying and problem solving. To help that process, set aside 30 to 60 minutes for winding down before bedtime. Stop working. Put away screens. Enjoy low-key conversation. Read a book. Do bedtime yoga—or anything you find calming. 

Move more. Regular physical movement—walking, jogging, cycling, weight lifting, etc.—can prevent or reduce depression. In fact, regular physical activity can be as effective as antidepressant medication. Some movement is always better than no movement. 

Be mindful of sugar. In a new study published in Medical Hypotheses, ­researchers from University of Kansas looked at all the evidence linking sugar to depression—and concluded that ingesting too many foods and beverages with added sugar imbalances the body, setting you up for depression. And that’s just the kind of comfort food a lot of us are overeating during the pandemic!

Vowing to stop eating sugary foods almost never works. You deprive yourself today and then, feeling deprived, binge tomorrow. What does work is mindfulness. Notice how you feel one-half to two hours after eating sweets. If you notice you feel terrible—and eating whole foods such as lean protein and vegetables doesn’t have the same effect—limiting your intake of sugar is going to be a lot easier. 

Make one small change to start—for instance, eating a healthy breakfast rather than a sugary muffin one day a week. Once you accomplish that small change, add another. Small, achievable steps are the way to achieve lasting change. 

THINK…ACT…BE

A common feature of depression is ­rumination—repeatedly telling yourself a sad story about your life, such as I’m a loser, after you lose your job or because you’re lonely from not seeing your friends. But are you a loser because you lost your job during a worldwide pandemic—when tens of millions of other people also have lost their jobs? Are you a loser because restaurants and movie theaters closed and people were staying home out of fear for their health? 

What’s likely is that your mind is ­creating a story that you are mistaking for reality. Remind yourself that there are alternative stories that aren’t so disheartening and are probably more accurate. Sure, you’ve had some failure in your life—but also a lot of success. True, you can’t meet your friends for dinner and a movie, but you’re not being left out ­because no one has been able to go. Use your mind to see things as they are, without distortion—and without seeing yourself through a negative lens. More ways to change your thinking…

Activate yourself. Behavioral activation—changing your action—is one of the most science-supported treatments for depression. Feeling good comes from having rewarding activities in your life. There are two types of ­reward—­enjoyment (hanging out with friends, watching entertaining shows, engaging in hobbies) and accomplishment (working, going to school, taking care of ­domestic duties). The key to overcoming depression is to first identify an activity that you find rewarding—and then do it. Don’t wait until you feel like doing it. Act, and feeling good will follow. This momentum of positive feelings will lead you to take another action…and another…and another. 

Be present. Depression often involves ruminating about the past and the future. A key to overcoming depression is to be present with life as it is. You don’t have to like the way things are. But however they are, this is your world—this moment, this day, this year. Whenever you realize you’re lost in thought, return to the present with your breath. Inhale, exhale and, with that one breath, feel your way back into the moment. The idea is to come into this exact moment—this breath…this sensation. Much of depression isn’t about how we’re feeling, but the fear that the feeling will continue forever and just get worse and worse. By being with what actually is, just as it is, we can realize that even though things aren’t ideal, we’re OK. 

*Mental health professionals classify depression as mild, moderate or severe (also called major) based on how many of the symptoms you have…how intense they are…how often they occur…and whether or not they interfere with your daily life and work. To quickly find out if you might have mild, moderate or severe depression, take a ­doctor-verified self-test at https://bit.ly/3lmtBBY.