“Tis the season to feel jolly!”
That’s what the song says anyway.
But what if you’re to the point you just aren’t feeling jolly … or feeling anything?
For many, this time of year can send them on a roller coaster under normal situations, much less the plethora of not-normal situations COVID-19 has turned 2020 into.
“Trying to keep as normal as you can is a lot easier said than done right now,” said Dr. Adam Connell, psychiatrist at Massac Memorial Hospital. “This pandemic has kind of created the perfect storm for depression and anxiety, and people who are already struggling or on that cusp — it’s either worsened it or pushed them over that brink to where people are really starting to struggle more.”
So what are depression and anxiety?
Connell explained that depression is more to do with mood and the overall sense of happiness and wellbeing. Anxiety is more to do with worry or thinking about worst-case scenarios
“A lot of people right now are having financial stress or stress with not being able to see family members, so just worrying about that stuff a lot to the point where it’s causing those other issues — concentration issues, sleep issues, impairing daily functioning” can be defined as anxiety, Connell said.
In the time since Connell began his practice at Massac Memorial in mid-July, he’s seen an increase in depression and anxiety related to COVID stipulations on social distancing as people “just aren’t being able to touch base family members” like they used to. He said issues from these circumstances can show up in several ways, or warning signs, like:
• Sleep issues, like insomnia;
• Decreased interest in doing your normal activities because you’re not able to or it suddenly feels overwhelming;
• More guilt about not being able to do things;
• Decreased energy, not feeling like doing much;
• Concentration issues;
• Appetite changes;
• Irritability, feeling on edge, worrying a lot;
• Suicidal thoughts or thoughts of not wanting to be alive.
“Something I’ve seen during the pandemic is the uptick in drug and alcohol use,” Connell said. “I was looking (Sunday) to see if there were any studies — there are some showing a 14 to 20% increase in alcohol intake. People are home more often (now) and (are) bored because there’s not a lot to do, and it’s winter time so they can’t get out the house more. All that increases stressors. People are self-medicating with that. I’ve seen it clinically and with studies. I tell most of my patients that in the moment, that may give some sense of relief and something to do, but in the long term it will worsen depression and anxiety symptoms or other mental health issues long term, and it creates its own issues in physical health, interpersonal relationships, that kind of thing.”
So what can you do if you or someone you love just isn’t seeming “right” during this holiday season, or any time of the year? Connell offered the following:
• Make connections. Whether it be scheduling a phone call or a video call with friends and/or family over the holidays, or any day, “connect with people as much as you can,” Connell said. “A big source of anxiety and/or depression with the holidays is not being able to connect with family and friends as much. I’ve seen a lot of issues related to that. We’re social creatures by nature and not being able to be social anymore has been a big issue for people, especially around the holidays.” And if that connection can, or needs to, be in person — be sure to maintain social distancing recommendations posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Health, he advised.
• Reduce media and social media intake, especially related to COVID. “The time we live in, we’re flooded with media coverage, and it’s pretty much all negative. A lot of people with anxiety are watching the news more, but that just leads to more anxiety about the situation and what’s going on in the world,” Connell said. “For a lot of patients, I’ve recommend take 15 to 30 minutes and do all of your research online about COVID or what’s going on in the world and try to distance yourself from the media coverage a little bit because it does get overwhelming for people. That’s part of anxiety is you want be aware of what’s going on, but it’s that vicious cycle that makes you worry more because of what you may have heard on the news or social media or whatever it is about what’s going on.”
• Maintain a normal schedule. “A big one I’ve recommended to people lately is just try to maintain some sense of normalcy,” Connell said. “Pretty much everyone’s schedule and lives are disrupted to and flipped some degree. And we’re at home a lot during this, so it’s important to maintain some sense of normalcy and schedule with that.” He suggests creating a schedule — “down to the hour if you have to” — to where you’re waking up at the same time every day, eating healthy, exercising, trying to get out of the house as much as you can and getting good sleep at night.
• Find a new hobby. On the flip side of not having a “normal” schedule, “right now, people have a little bit more free time because they’re not able to go out to places like restaurants — try to flip that into a positive: find a new hobby, go outside more, do something new in your life that you can spend your time on and stay busy. That will decrease anxiety and will help you feel better because you’re starting something new,” Connell said.
• Re-channel. “Try not to ruminate on those stressors or anxiety-provoking things going on,” Connell explained. “A big thing with psychotherapy as a whole is you can’t control the thoughts that enter your brain all the time, but you can control how you react to them and if you engage with them or not. Do you play with those thoughts or say, ‘Hey, what good does it do to sit there and worry about this situation I have no control over? Let’s focus on something I do have control over.’ And that can be anything, like cleaning the living room, to re-channel that nervous energy.”
• Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“If it gets to the point where you are doing those things and feel like you’re still struggling, reach out to professional help,” Connell said. “I always recommend therapy or counseling first to see if that will help alleviate those symptoms as far as behavioral things you can try to do. If that doesn’t work or gets to the point where it’s even more severe, reach out to your primary care doctor or to a psychiatrist and we can talk about some medications to help.”
Connell noted that with the onset of COVID and increases in technology, more therapists are offering teletherapy, “making it easier than ever to get into therapy and counseling because you can do it from your house if you have the technology.”
But, he believes teletherapy can be a two-edged sword.
“It’s been good for people because it improves the access, but at the same time, you’re not getting that personal touch, which is a big piece of therapy,” he said.
“In the grand scheme, with everything that’s going on, some therapy is better than nothing,” Connell noted.