Depression and Social Distancing

As a person who’s used to working from home (and a person with roommates who aren’t), it has become clear to me that many people who are accustomed to leaving their houses every day are going to have trouble with the sudden call from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do things like work from home and cease any type of social gathering.  Admittedly, even though I’m used to being home most days, when the news came down last Monday that things would be changing, it freaked me out.  It freaked me out to such a degree that I couldn’t get myself together to post anything at all last Thursday, despite there only being a proofread between myself and a post.

The information that I bring to you this week is a collection of things I needed to hear during those days, borne from personal experience and paired with information from several YouTube videos by information-driven channels I follow rather closely.  Primarily, I’ll be drawing on CGP Grey’s7 Ways to Maximize Misery,” though a good chunk of complimentary material comes from Kurzgesagt’s videos on Loneliness and Dissatisfaction.  If you want emotional advice that doesn’t have to do directly with the pandemic we’re all working through, definitely follow those links and check out what they have to say.  I recommend those videos to everyone even before there’s a deeply common mental health struggle.

It’s important to note that everything I’m about to talk about is interconnected. It will be harder to go outside if you haven’t showered this week.  You won’t want to put the work into your sleep schedule when you’re not leaving your house.  These habits are cyclical, and the hardest part of this kind of cycle is getting that wheel turning—hard when it’s not turning at all, and even harder when it’s currently turning the wrong direction.  That’s why I urge you to congratulate yourself for the little victories as they come.  You have to be on your own team; you’ll always be stuck with you.

First, I’d like to talk about hygiene. Frankly, it’s a weird thing to talk about in any context (except maybe when you’re explaining it to your own children; I’ll get back to you on that…).  It’s tempting to feel like since we won’t be interacting with anyone face-to-face—or indeed leaving our homes—certain pieces of self-care should become irrelevant, or at least just not worth the effort.  I heard that my restaurant might be getting shut down completely on a Monday, showered after work, and then didn’t step behind that curtain again until the following Thursday, depressed and confused as I was.  This past weekend, I was confused and appalled by the number of pimples which had appeared on my face, but it’s a direct effect of that singular lapse in hygiene.  I know I’m not alone in this, but my body is a constant source of stress and frustration which drains my self esteem and confidence, so growing a new (and impressive) set of pimples on one side of my face was not my idea of progress—though with everyone keeping their distance, it was almost a perfect time to learn that lesson.  Keeping up with your regular personal hygiene routine may feel pointless when you’re not leaving your house, but trust me: it does more for your mind than you care to discover.

Plus, if you’re feeling gross, you’re going to have an even harder time with my second piece of advice.  Keeping your distance from other humans does not prevent you from spending time outside, and there’s a couple reasons that’s going to help to the degree that it will.  We’re fortunate to be going through this period of frightening confusion just as the weather is turning warmer (though as I write this, it’s grey and chilly outside…), so I urge you to get out of the house on those days when the sun is shining.  Go for a drive, or a walk, or just open two windows on opposite sides of your house.  The fresh air and sunshine will do wonders for your mood.

Honestly, take any excuse you can to leave your house (provided you maintain your social distance).  One of the worst things for depression is staying in one room—or bed—all day.  Variety is the spice of life, and if you’re starting to get glum, try getting out.  You’ll be floored by how you feel when you walk back through your door.  Walks (or jogs, if you’re that sort) are a particularly good idea, which brings me to…

Be active!  You probably already know this, but even mildly strenuous physical activity will trigger a release of endorphins, the brain chemical that is part of why we love chocolate, music, and sex (seriously!).  Obviously there’s varying levels of release, but research has shown there is likely a link between endorphin release and a reduction in anxiety and depression.  I know from personal experience that when I’m starting to get low, dragging myself to the gym or forcing myself to do a HIIT workout in my living room actually does make a world of difference.  Afterward—once I’ve caught my breath—I feel ready to take on whatever else I have set aside for my day.

The other benefit to activity is that it’s a natural form of variety.  I told you this is all interconnected, and I wasn’t kidding.  Routine is a good way to get bored, and our normal routines involve things like leaving the house and ensuring we’re presentable to the outside world.  Routines are important, obviously—I’ve already encouraged you not to fall out of some.  However, I have one roommate who’s been playing a single video game almost nonstop for three weeks (it’s Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, so it’s not like there’s not much there) and another who’s been binging RuPaul’s Drag Race for about the same amount of time (she’s on season 8 of 13…).  They both have their own relationships with mental health, and it’s not really my place to butt in, but I do worry about them.  Being out of work creates an astonishing amount of unfilled time, and I’m glad those close to me have chosen pastimes which appeal to them, but personally, I need a bit more variety.  I have two YouTube shows and a Disney+ series I’m currently working on, a book, and my video game catalogue is a chronic mess of half-played games which I do keep going back to.  I’m not trying to say that I’m right and they’re wrong, rather that you should take a good look at yourself.  If you’re feeling depressed, what you’re doing isn’t working: it’s not quitting if you start something new before you finish this, whatever this is.  The flipside is also true.  If you’ve started too many things (this is the pit into which I fall), grit your teeth and finish one.  You’ll be glad you did.

Another piece of that variety to which I refer is balancing being informed and being optimistic.  The news lately has been very detailed in their chronicling of the disease’s progress, and while that’s far from a bad thing, I still find it depressing to constantly be hearing about it ostensibly growing worse.  I bring this up to point out that while being informed is good, knowing every last numerical update isn’t necessarily going to improve your mood. My advice in this context is roughly the same as the rest: if you’re having a hard time, you’ve gotta change it up.

Kurzgesagt’s video on Loneliness bears several really good points I feel deserve reiteration here.  Humans evolved as pack animals—in groups of 40 to 50 no less.  The three people who live in my house are a far cry from fifty, so thank God for social media.  Gaining the respect of the pack was an evolutionary advantage to early humans, and that drive remains.  I bring this up to tell you that a friend failing to snap you back, or not responding to a text or Facebook message, isn’t blowing you off because you disgust them.  By my reckoning, they’re struggling with the same things as you, and if they’re anything like me, they’ve kept that notification up on their phone so they won’t forget to hit you back…one day.  Keep on keeping on, everybody.  If you’re on the sending side, don’t get discouraged; keep sending!  Reaching out is breaking a cycle of isolation, and even if they don’t respond, you’re still breaking that seal that develops.  If you’re on the receiving end, respond!  Even if it’s been a week, I guarantee that that question they asked you still represents an answer they desire.  They asked it, after all!

One of the most important things in times like this is the healthcare system’s ability to see to the most at risk populations in their entirety.  That’s why reducing the illness’s spread is so important: slowing it gives the healthcare industry a chance to keep up.  There’s another Kurzgesagt video about the virus itself that I recommend you check out.  It does a very good job of presenting a fact-based look at the science behind what’s going on (and the decidedly clinical tone many of Kurzgesagt’s videos take lends itself nicely to a calm, collected look at what’s going on).  They say it best: social distancing isn’t fun.  It’s not good for the mental health of the individual; it’s good for the health of the population as a whole.  I’m not fighting or disagreeing with their take.  On the contrary, I’m simply trying to give you, an individual in this society, tools to maintain your mental health while you keep your social distance.  Together, we really can make this a minor piece of history, something only MD’s will study during their postgrad epidemiology courses, rather than a piece of middle school modern history.  It’s up to you and me to see that this pandemic is a success story and not a cautionary tale to future generations.  I know it’s hard; it’s hard for me, too.  I beg you: use the resources I’ve brought forward to keep your spirits up long enough that the CDC says we can go back to church and the movie theater and bars.  I’ll do my part.  Please do yours…

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