Everything I Forgot About Managing My Anxiety and Depression During COVID-19

Karen McGinty, Content Marketing Specialist

COVID-19 is stressful for everyone. But for those of us who have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, it’s a perfect storm. Part of the problem is the fact that there’s a potentially fatal disease floating around, which would be enough to scare the pants off pretty much anybody. But if you’re anything like me, the real culprit is that, in order to avoid COVID-19, we’re now doing the worst things possible for our mood—staying in the house alone, burning through our Netflix list, and eating to make ourselves feel better.

Woman watching tv

So how do we cope when the methods necessary to prevent one disease leave us feeling nervous, paranoid, jittery, sad, hopeless, tired, and irritable? Is there any hope, or is this just the price we pay? I’ve spent the past few months asking myself the same thing. After my emotional state ping-ponged back and forth a couple of times, I finally started looking for answers instead of accepting the notion that there was nothing I could do about it. I still have good and bad days, but I’m finally starting to "flatten the curve" in my head.

Self-isolating wasn’t as easy as I expected.

I always thought it would be wonderful to stay in my house all the time, but I haven’t enjoyed it as much as I expected, maybe because it isn’t by choice.

As someone diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I’ve learned over the years that some choices I make help me feel somewhat better, while others reliably send me spiraling down a black hole of panic and self-loathing. For example, if I feel blah for no reason, I’ll always be glad I chose to take a short walk instead of sitting in a darkened living room with the blinds closed. And if I’m crippled by anxiety over a work task, meeting a friend for coffee to talk about it is always better medicine than calling in sick to avoid the problem entirely.

Making smart choices is hard during the best of times. Add a global pandemic to the mix and it starts to feel impossible.

Self Isolated Woman

The anxiety was what got me in the early days (as I now refer to March 2020). I thought I could "lean in" to the problem and control the situation by immersing myself in all things pandemic. I monitored the coronavirus news morning, noon, and night. I reread Steven King’s The Stand. I binge-watched six seasons of The Walking Dead. Each step of the way, I could feel myself getting more jittery and nervous, but I thought it was better than sticking my head in the sand. I thought I was being brave.

I also ate constantly. Little Debbie’s snack cakes were my jam. I was bored, so I ate. The novelty of ordering groceries online and having them delivered was fun too, so I entertained myself adding food to my online cart every week. The food was the one thing I could control.

When social-distancing measures didn’t go away after a couple of months, I found myself too exhausted to be anxious all the time and finally settled into a mellow depression. The scale models, cross-stitching projects, and jigsaw puzzles suddenly seemed lame. Nothing on TV grabbed my attention. Even food was boring.

At that point, I just sat around hoping coronavirus would go away. But it didn’t, and I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Man riding bicycle

COVID-19 doesn’t mean we can’t manage our anxiety and depression.

No one knows when COVID-19 will no longer be a threat and we can go back to normal—or what that new normal will look like. All I know for sure is that we can’t wait for a vaccine or for the virus to burn itself out before we start taking care of ourselves better and finding a way forward in this weirdness.

Here are a few things I remembered about getting back on top of my mood during the pandemic and feeling as good as I possibly can.

  • You don’t need to have COVID-19 to call your doctor. I started by finally calling my doctor. For some reason, I’d been so focused on COVID-19 that it hadn’t occurred to me to call her with other issues. Most offices have appointment time set aside for patients who are not sick with the coronavirus, and many providers can conduct your appointment on the phone or computer. During our telehealth appointment, my clinician and I talked about my symptoms, how I’d been feeling, and what I hoped to achieve going forward. She adjusted my anxiety medicine and prescribed an inhaler (so I’d stop taking my temperature every time my allergies caused a coughing fit).
  • Self-isolation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise or go outside. My doctor also reminded me that exercise was still important—something I’d conveniently forgotten—so I’ve committed to taking a short bike ride each evening, after the weather cools off a bit. It cheers me up to see other people out in their yards barbecuing, chatting, and washing their cars. It makes me feel like I’m part of a group, without the burden of having to make conversation.
  • Some comfort eating can make anxiety and depression worse. Now that I’m paying more attention to what I eat, I’ve realized that my all-carb, all-Little Debbie’s diet was wreaking havoc on my mood—the sugar caused my body to mimic the symptoms of anxiety more than ever. I still eat sweets, but I’ve stopped buying the worst offenders I’m most likely to pig out on, and I make sure I have some protein at every meal.
  • If something makes you feel crummy, do something else. If reading the news makes you angry, stop. If watching Grey’s Anatomy makes you cry too much, stop. If sitting on the couch makes you feel bad, stop. Do something else. Anything else. Sometimes, just taking the garbage to the curb or browsing cat memes is enough to kick me out of a small funk.
  • Remember that feeling bad isn’t something you have to "tough out" by yourself. I’ve never met anyone who successfully handled their anxiety or depression alone. Reach out to friends and family through Zoom or on the phone and talk about how you’re feeling. Join an online group for people who are dealing with the same things as you. Speak with a therapist or counselor.

If you’re afraid you might hurt yourself or someone else, or if you feel hopeless, absolutely get help right now. Don’t wait for it to pass or worry that you’re overreacting. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or take advantage of their online chat feature. It’s free, it’s always open, and it’s confidential.

Lean on others, and let them lean on you.

We’re living through a strange time and facing more emotional triggers than ever before. Just remember that, while it seems lonely, we’re going through this together. Lean on the people around you when you need help. If you know someone else who’s having a difficult time, be part of their support system too.