How do I cope with loneliness and depression during COVID-19?

Anonymous
asks:
I’ve seen a lot of people post about COVID-19: how to avoid it, mostly, especially with limited interaction with people. I know this reduces the change of the virus spreading. I know I’m healthy but there are people I live with who are both elderly and immune compromised and I would not want anything happening to them. I know this will likely be temporary and my life will get back to somewhat of a norm without a pandemic hovering over my head. However I noticed that I’m becoming lonely. Extremely lonely. I graduate this semester and have made friends since I first started school. I had all these social events planned. I wanted to decorate my cap and gown and even thought about taking photoshoots for my friends who are seniors. But now that this virus is spreading so fast I can’t do any of that. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to walk during graduation. I know that’s not a huge issue but it makes me ridiculously sad for some reason to think that I won’t walk this year for graduation :( I’m starting to feel depressed again. I miss my friends so much. I miss having things to do. Even when school starts back up it will be online and that’s not the same as face to face contact. I don’t even know if I can continue working (I work on campus). It’s like I have nothing to do. No one to see. All I do is apply for jobs, sleep in, do housework, etc. I’ve been on social media but I’m cutting that down since the panicking is just making me feel worse. I know it won’t be like this forever but right now I feel like I have no meaning, no purpose in what I do everyday. There’s only so many hours I can spend indoors without feeling stir crazy. I don’t know what to do. I know I could talk with friends over text or phone but it doesn’t feel the same. And most people I know are panicking like me so that would just make us both feel worse. I doubt I could see a therapist since I can’t really go anywhere in person, and we have so few therapists in town I don’t think any of them work over the net. I just feel so stuck at the moment.
Sam replies:

I chose this question because so many of us are in this crummy, leaking, barely steerable boat right now.

Three things in particular jumped out at me about your question, because I'm seeing them in other Scarleteen users, my social media channels, and my friend circles: loneliness, lack of purpose or direction, and depression/grief.

Let's start with loneliness. There are lots of ways technology can be used to keep us connected to others: holding Skype, FaceTime or Zoom dates with friends, family, and partners, hosting long-distance movie nights, texting or calling loved ones a little more than usual, or just hanging out in online spaces like message boards.

If you're social distancing in a physical space with other people you get along with, you might try to plan some specific, low-stakes, fun things to do together. Whether it's cooking dinner or playing video games, setting aside time to connect with the people who share your space can help head off the feeling of being lonely while someone else is in the other room, also feeling lonely.

In addition to all of those options, I suggest looking for new spaces or new groups of people to connect with online. (You could even start with our message board community at Scarleteen, which is pretty fantastic.)

Something that can compound the loneliness of the current pandemic is the lack of novel interactions: those random, friendly, low-stakes conversations that used to be a normal part of our days. People are coming up with some creative ways to address that. Some are organizing virtual proms and book clubs. LGBT centers are hosting digital support groups. Muscians, scientists, and other creators are putting on livestreams or Q&As where people can bond over a topic they love or learn something new. People are making Discords and other platforms to talk about shared interests, engage in hobbies, and play games. Heck, one of my favorite podcasters is reading children's chapter books out loud on YouTube, and just hearing a soothing voice that isn't my partner's takes my loneliness level down a good twenty percent.

Even with all those things to try, I'll say this: there are still going to be moments when you feel lonely.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's a completely reasonable reaction to increased isolation. I've talked to people who feel like there's something wrong with them because, in spite of all the options for connection, they still feel lonely. The truth is, there are going to be days where you crave physical contact, or being out in public spaces with other people, or sitting down in a restuarant, or not having to download a program or open an app in order to interact with another person. When that happens, acknowledge the loneliness and let yourself feel it for a moment, rather than trying to jam it back down because it will only pop up again later.

Just as it's okay to be lonely, it's also okay to be sad right now.

Many of us are missing out on transitional moments, planned events, or just things we were looking forward to. It can feel silly to think we have anything to be sad about when we hold out our grievances and compare them to the things we could be experiencing that are worse, but it's okay to feel and grieve for our losses, big and little.

For instance, you wanted to walk for graduation and do things with your friends to celebrate that moment in your life. I was really looking forward to going out somewhere fancy for my birthday this month. You and I both know these are, in the grand scheme, minor losses. You and your friends can find other ways to mark this transition; you could have a "graduation observed" where you celebrate and toss your caps in the air, even if it's just in your backyard instead of a formal ceremony. I can go out for dinner another time.

Here's the thing about human brains: we can hold two ideas in them at once. You can feel sad about missing your graduation while still understanding that you're in a position of privilege. It's not silly to grieve the things you were looking forward to just because someone else is going through something more severe. Feeling sorry for yourself doesn't stop you from feeling compassion or sympathy for others.

The pandemic is also, understandably, adding an extra layer of depression or anxiety to everyday life. Some people are getting a crash course in what it's like to be anxious or scared day in and day out. Others, yourself included, are getting yet more stressors dropped onto a pre-existing mental illness.

One factor intensifying the depression and fear many of us are grappling with is the daily reminder that our feelings are pretty dang valid and justified. It's hard to combat depression when a cursory glance at the news shows a situation that is going to get worse before it gets better. It's difficult not to feel anxious when just going for groceries could expose you or others to a dangerous illness. What are we supposed to do?

I don't have a perfect answer. But I do have a strategy.

Much of the depression and anxiety we're feeling right now also comes from feeling powerless. A way to combat those feelings is to ask two questions: what can I control? Is there a way I can help?

For example, I cannot control people in a city halfway across the country who choose to go out in spite of being told not to, but I can follow social distancing guidelines to keep my community and loved ones safe. I cannot help everyone in the country by giving them money to cover their rent, but I can contribute to mutual aid (or to the PayPals and such of friends I know are struggling).

If it's hard for you to come up with examples of what you can control or help with, try writing it out on the page.

Pick a particular element of the pandemic that's stressing you out or making you feel hopeless, then write down whatever ways of addressing it come to mind. When you start, you'll have a mixture of realistic and totally-not-going-to-happen items. The point is to get yourself thinking about what would help, and what you have the capacity to do. They don't have to be huge things either; small actions like writing a representative, texting a friend, or staying inside all count. Once you've got a list of things you can actually do, pick one thing for that day and either do it or start on it.

Keeping with the idea of what you can control versus what you cannot, one of my biggest recommendations is to limit how much of certain media and social media you consume. While it's helpful to check the news once a day to stay up-to-date on new guidelines or recommendations in your area to follow to keep yourself and others safe, it's all too easy--particularly in spaces like Twitter--to end up scrolling down your screen, steeping in bad news and other people's fear, anger, panic and grief--none of which are things you can actually address. It's important to stay informed and have compassion, but you can't solve the problems of the world by absorbing everyone's unhappiness.

If it's an option for you, try blocking certain social media for large chunks of time, or deleting their apps from your devices (I deleted Twitter from my phone because I'd click on the app out of habit and promptly give myself an anxiety spike). That can make it easier to set a boundary around how much COVID-19 information you encounter.

Beyond limiting your intake of COVID-19 related news, I'm seeing several recommendations from mental healthcare experts about how to manage anxiety and depression right now, including:

  • If at all possible, access mental healthcare. You mention worrying it's not something that will be available in your area. Right now, a lot of in-person mental health providers are switching to online sessions, and there are platforms out there that can match you with a remote therapist outside of your area. You may be be able to locate a remote therapist through insurance providers as well, and if you're in college I'd suggest checking your student health resources to see if they're offering or referring students to mental healthcare.
  • Practice positive distractions when possible. Self-care guides are a great source of these, but ultimately you're looking for anything that gives your mind a break from thinking about COVID-19 and related stressors.
  • If you're someone who was already dealing with anxiety or depression, now is the time to draw on any tools or strategies you learned that you've found particularly helpful. Those could be workbooks, exercises, meditation or mindfulness apps--you name it. If it's helped manage your mental illness in the past, it might be one of your most powerful tools right now.
  • If the conversations you have with other people seem to focus solely on COVID-19 and stressing out or venting about it, it's okay to ask for boundaries around that. In your case, you and your friends could agree to limit COVID-19 venting to five minutes, then agree to talk about literally anything else. Doing that can help everyone feel less stressed because they're spending time connecting with people they care about without the conversation centering on something scary.
  • To borrow from friend-of-Scarleteen Captain Awkward, it helps to set aside at least half an hour each day to directly deal with your anxiety. Do a meditation or exercise or whatever it is you've identified as your key anxiety fighting tools. Tackle the things you know will create anxiety, like phone calls or checking the guidelines in your area, so that you can get them done in one go and then care for yourself after.

Finally, let's talk about the feeling of purposelessness that accompanies this whole mess. Of course, there are people, like healthcare workers, grocery store employees, postal workers, and people with children, who have a very obvious purpose in their work right now.

But for many of us, our lives are structured around work, relationships or school. Our goals, and even the ways we define ourselves, relate to those things and they fill our days (whether or not they should fill them to the degree they do is a topic for another time). So many of us are finding out that without those structures operating as they normally do, it feels like there's nothing left to who we are or what we do.

It's become a cliché that during this period of social distancing, people have been baking a lot of bread. But you know what? Baking bread is several hours worth of purpose, with a tangible (and edible) product at the the end. Finding ways to fill or divide up your time during social distancing can do a lot to ease that feeling of just floating from day to day.

Lest this sound too much like the widely-criticized "now that you're at home with nothing to do it's time to write King Lear/start your side hustle" advice, keep in mind that you can define purpose very, very, very broadly. My purpose two days ago was to make sure my pet rabbit got brushed because she is creating fluff tumbleweeds in the house. Another person could choose any of the following as their purpose for a day:

  • Make sure the houseplants get watered
  • Write a self-indulgent, fluffy fanfic
  • Design a dream garden
  • Try yoga to see what all the fuss is about
  • Figure out the best way to season popcorn
  • Send fan mail to three writers/muscians/podcasters/etc. whose work they love
  • Listen to Lizzo's entire discography, with bonus points for developing orginal choreography involving a pet
  • Pick a single spot in the house, like a desk or a shelf, to tidy and clean
  • Draw or paint something without any pressure to make it "good"
  • Wash your face
  • Brush your teeth
  • Make it through to tomorrow

Many of those examples are small, weird, or boil down to simply: "Survive." I did that for a reason. I'm thinking of this image, which is based on a line from an Emily Dickinson poem: "Hope is the thing with feathers." We hear a lot of people talking about hope lately: how to hold onto it, how to cultivate it, how to envision a time beyond the present moment that's bearable rather than bleak. Hope is framed as this big, bright, glowing thing that, if we could only generate it, would make this all bearable.

I like thinking of hope, instead, as a scrabbly, scruffy, weird thing.  Because, from what we've seen so far, that's what the process of getting through this is going to be like. Those of us who can will hunker down and be patient, even if that sometimes looks like a messy bedroom or a Netflix marathon. We can look out for ourselves and others in whatever small, sometimes imperfect ways are available to us. We can build little pockets of purpose to carry us from day to day.

What each of us does to try and get through this may not feel like much, but that doesn't mean it's not enough.

Here's some more advice that might help you out: