Pandemic Blues Are A Real Thing We Need To Talk About

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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“So, do you ever just like, cry for no reason?” my friend asked over Facebook Messenger video. I rolled my eyes and told her I’d forgotten my ID on a trip to the pharmacy that week. It had ended in a crying meltdown via speakerphone, with me weeping to my husband that we hadn’t been to a restaurant since March. I knew why, too: I have the pandemic blues.

It sounds innocuous: a little sadder maybe, a little more anxious. But really, sometimes I look at my husband and tell him that life is horrible, and will always be horrible. When he suggests a safe outing, I laugh in his face. “Where? We’ll just get the virus,” I say. “No one will wear a mask and I’ll want to scream at them.”

This should not be a shock. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that in mid-July, they found that 53% of American adults find the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. That’s up from 32% in March. 36% said they had difficulty sleeping; 32% reported difficulty eating, and 12% said they were drinking too much. Normally, one in ten adults report symptoms of depression or anxiety in any given week. In one week in July, 40.1% of adults reported clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety. This the face of the pandemic blues.

Do You Have The Pandemic Blues?

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that “rates major negative mental health impacts” tend to be highest among people sheltering in place and women with children under the age of 18. We don’t want to be gendered, but that’s likely because more cis women are shouldering the burden of childcare. We could probably amend that. “Primary caregivers of children under 18” might be more specific and truthful, no matter what their gender, but Scary Mommy didn’t conduct the study.

The Kansas Health System says that as of September, 30% adults of were showing symptoms of clinical depression. The pandemic blues are clinical and treatable. They aren’t a natural consequence of living in these conditions, and you don’t have to continue to cope unaided. If you feel sad all the time, avoid activities that make you happy, have trouble sleeping, and feel “hopeless and helpless” all the time, you may be suffering from depression.

Pandemic blues also include anxiety. The Rochester Health System reports that specific anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 may include “nervousness, restlessness, stress, constant worrying, an upset stomach, [and] feeling overwhelmed.” If you feel this way the majority of the time, you may have clinical anxiety.

The pandemic blues? They may be a treatable mental illness. Get to your doctor and talk to them about help.

The Pandemic Blues Aren’t A Joke

No, I’m not kidding. We don’t all feel “constant worrying,” “stress,” and “nervousness.” Don’t crack up. It’s tempting, I know. You laugh because nothing’s funny: it seems like everyone has the pandemic blues, like we’re all freaking out all the time. It’s almost reached adage status. If people are acting weird, it’s the pandemic, stupid. We’re losing our minds because we’re cooped up (many of us with small children) with the threat of a deadly disease hanging over our heads. A trip to the grocery store is a fraught expedition. Of course we’re all losing it.

But there’s a difference between occasional crying jags, between having some bad days and good days, and between full-blown depression and/or anxiety. Yes, we’ve all gone a little off our rockers, and we need to give each other space and grace for that. But some of us need more than that. If you find yourself mired in a sense of anxiety or futility, you need to seek help.

But We Have To Be Careful…

This isn’t a “mental health pandemic,” as Psychiatric Times points out. Those studies asked people about symptoms — but they didn’t conduct a full mental health workup. In other words, 40% of the country may be showing symptoms of depression, AKA the pandemic blues. But they may not be clinically depressed. Instead, they may be manifesting “demoralization” or disorientation and a lack of fulfillment, and grief. This lack of a formal diagnosis doesn’t make the pandemic blues less real, or less significant.

It may mean your doctor can’t magically “fix” you. But cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, fresh air, and forcing yourself to engage in pleasurable activities won’t hurt you, either.

The same goes for anxiety. The clinical standards for generalized anxiety disorder include anxious feelings and difficulty functioning for six months. No one who took those surveys in July, Psychiatric Times points out, could meet that standard if their symptoms began in March.

This does not make the pandemic blues less real or less distressing. Not meeting some clinical standard for anxiety or depression doesn’t invalidate your everyday experiences of stress, worry, futility, and meaninglessness. For example, about a third of the time, I cope with crying jags, a feeling of despair, hopelessness, and futility. I avoid most pleasurable activities during that time. However, these things don’t affect my ability to function (I still get my work done, mostly), and I’m already adequately medicated for my psychiatric disorders.

I have the pandemic blues. It’s not a clinical case. But it exists. My husband has them, too. We acknowledge it. Luckily my good days tend to line up with his bad ones, so someone can usually keep the household humming.

So yes, I had a crying jag on the way home from the pharmacy. Some nights, I hop on Facebook Messenger and get way too drunk with my friends. I’m not an alcoholic by any stretch of the imagination, but my drinking’s definitely seen an uptick. I freak out about maskless people way too much and way too often. I have the pandemic blues. It’s there. I show symptoms of depression and anxiety, but not clinical ones.

So I do the best I can. I force myself outside. I talk to friends on video chat. I play with my dog. I do hobbies I love. It never goes away, not completely. But it becomes bearable. In these times, that’s all we can ask.

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