At the end of an emotionally charged year, Nicole Mackie, 37, found mental respite in the 2020 holiday season. She and her boyfriend put up a tree at their home in Long Beach, California, listened to Christmas music “all the time,” and discovered joy in baking and eating treats. But then the holidays ended, the new year began, and Mackie’s mood swings returned.
“What's really been bothering me is that we're coming up on a year of being in lockdown,” says Mackie. The impending milestone reminds her of all that she’s missed: time with family, meeting friends’ new babies, the funeral of a loved one. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 cases in the U.S. still alarmingly high, quarantine is likely to stick around a while more, thanks to a slower-than-anticipated national vaccine rollout and the detection of new, more contagious strains of COVID-19.
The result? “People are getting burnt out,” says Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. “There's this emotional exhaustion.” Indeed, nearly half of all Americans (42.4%) recently reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jessica Jackson, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, believes the mental challenges many of us are experiencing right now aren’t because day-to-day quarantine life is so difficult, but rather because the length of time we’ve had to quarantine is. And that’s where quarantine depression can creep in.
What Is Quarantine Depression?
Quarantine depression isn’t a technical or clinical term. But you can think of it as a descriptor for the mental health challenges induced or exacerbated by stay-at-home life. Humans are social creatures by nature, and the limited social interaction we’re getting right now because of quarantine is putting us at risk for things like depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, says Goldman. In fact, most people seem to be currently experiencing increased stress, depressive symptoms, and anxiety symptoms to some degree, Goldman says.
Mackie can tell that the restrictions enforced by quarantine—not being able to hug her family, see her friends, or spend as much time outside—are wearing on her well-being. “The mood swings I've had have been pretty intense,” she says.
For Colorado resident Haliegha Moles, 23, quarantining apart from her extended family and friends this past year has been “really, really tough.” Moles lives with PTSD, OCD, and panic attacks, and when she feels a depressive mood coming on, she can’t just go over to a friend’s house and distract herself with their company. Instead, she says, she simply sits with her negative emotions until she either falls asleep or starts watching TV. With quarantine, “it’s a lot harder to get your mind off anything,” she says.
Goldman points out that the mental strain people are experiencing right now isn’t just because of quarantine—it’s quarantine plus all of the other stressors people have in their day-to-day lives (think work, family obligations, relationship issues), layered on top of everything else happening the world (like extreme political division and increased awareness of systemic racism). All of these converging factors “can get very overwhelming very quickly for people,” Goldman says.
An important distinction: Experiencing depressive symptoms (like feelings of sadness or stress) doesn’t necessarily mean you have clinical depression. Depression, Jackson explains, is prolonged, intense feelings of sadness and worthlessness combined with significant changes to your sleep schedule and diet. When you’re clinically depressed, it often feels like “you’re living in black-and-white instead of color,” Jackson says.
If you’re feeling this way more often than not—and especially if you’re having thoughts of suicide—this article won’t have all the advice you need. Instead, you should reach out to a licensed provider for help or call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 for 24/7 support. You should also seek professional help if you feel like your mental health is impairing your day-to-day functioning and you don’t have the tools to cope with it yourself. Remember: No matter how you’re feeling, you’re not alone, and there’s help out there for you.
How to Treat Quarantine Depression
Quarantine depression really sucks, but there are steps you can take to feel better. We asked the experts for advice on coping with the stressors of prolonged isolation.
1. Acknowledge things suck.
Few of us are happy about the fact that we’re still quarantining nearly a year into the pandemic. At the same time, we recognize that staying at home is crucial for curbing the spread of COVID-19. This disconnect between our thoughts and actions—I hate quarantining, but I’m doing it anyway—is a concept known as cognitive dissonance, explains Jackson, and it can cause mental discomfort. What can help is reframing your mindset to simply acknowledge (rather than fight) the coexistence of both truths. For example: Yes, I hate quarantining, and yes, I am still doing it because it’s important.
2. Find ways to connect, even if they’re not ideal.
Isolation is not good for humans, and withdrawing from others can lead to depression, says Jackson. That’s why it’s really important to find COVID-safe ways to connect right now. These methods of connection likely aren’t ideal (let’s be honest, a Zoom happy hour is definitely not the same as an IRL wine night), and it’s okay to acknowledge that, says Jackson. Just don’t let that stop you from connecting at all. It can help to pick a form of chatting that’s different from your norm. For example, if you just can’t stand the thought of another video call, try catching up on the phone or even text messaging. You can also try more creative methods of communication. Moles, for instance, has been exchanging handwritten letters and Polaroids with friends through the mail and playing video games with pals over Zoom.
3. Reestablish your routine.
It’s easy to let routine fall to the wayside in quarantine. After all, you’re not going anywhere or seeing anyone outside your house, so does it really matter if you wake up at a certain time, put on real clothes, or brush your hair? Actually, it does. “We all need structure,” says Jackson. Without structure, she explains, it’s easy to feel lost and like we’re not doing anything. That’s why she recommends establishing a general routine for your days and sticking to that schedule as best you can. The schedule needn’t be super rigid—for example, you could plan to wake up between eight and nine, do chores between 11 and noon, and knock off items on your to-do list between two and four. As long as you have a general framework, you’ll set yourself up for a purpose-driven day.
4. Take stock of the basics.
Pause for a sec and evaluate how well you’re sleeping, eating, moving, and managing stress. Then pick one of those areas and focus your efforts on improving it, suggests Goldman. Maybe that means shifting your schedule so that you get at least eight hours of sleep a night, penciling in a 20-minute walk every afternoon, or setting a reminder on your phone to drink a glass of water every two hours. Making these kinds of small improvements to your routine will (a) improve your overall health (which yes, includes your mental health) and (b) help you feel more in control.
5. Check in with yourself.
In normal times, Goldman encourages clients to check in with themselves once a day and ask: What do I need right now to be the best me? But nowadays, because our moods and emotions are changing very rapidly, she recommends conducting these check-ins multiple times a day. What you need, of course, will really depend on how you’re feeling—maybe one moment you’ll need breath work and the next you’ll need a catch-up call with a trusted friend. Whatever your answer may be, honor it.
6. Cut yourself some slack.
We’re living in a not-normal time right now, which means you shouldn’t expect yourself to operate at the same capacity as you did in the pre-COVID era. Give yourself permission to not respond to every email or meet every last deadline, says Jackson. The world looks very different right now, so it’s only natural that your ability to get things done will look different too.
7. Practice mindfulness.
Thinking too much about the future or the past—both of which are out of our control—can cause stress and anxiety, says Goldman. Grounding yourself in the present moment and focusing on what’s actually in your control, a process known as mindfulness, can help assuage those difficult emotions.
Jackson recommends taking a minute (or five) to sit still, focus on your breath, and check in with yourself. Ask: How am I feeling? Where am I feeling it? As thoughts pop into your head, acknowledge them and then imagine the thoughts floating away on a cloud or a leaf down a river, she says. You can practice mindfulness on your own—or do it with the help of an app.
8. Try a new hobby (with moderation).
Like many of us, Mackie has used quarantine as a chance to try new hobbies, including roller skating, sewing, playing the guitar, and Twitch streaming. These novel activities, she says, have helped her cope with quarantine depression. Jackson agrees that this approach can be helpful, but urges moderation when starting a new activity so that you don’t overindulge and then lose interest. Find something that you enjoy, she advises, and do it when—and only when—you actually feel like it.
9. Write it out.
Putting your thoughts and feelings down on paper can help you release them a little bit (even if they come back to them later), says Jackson. This process also helps validate your own emotional experiences. Jackson recommends everyone try journaling for the mental health benefits, but caveats that there’s no “right way” to do it. Some people find it’s helpful to journal every night or every morning as a way to consistently clear their head, while others prefer to write only when they’re feeling an intense emotion. Experiment with the practice and see what works best for you.
10. Give yourself a hug.
Physical touch can be hard to come by in quarantine. Guess what, though: “You might not be able to hug people right now, but you can still give yourself what you need,” says Jackson. One simple way to show yourself a little TLC? Gently press your hand over your heart and feel the pressure, suggests Jackson. Hugging yourself might sound hokey, but trust us, it soothes.
11. List your daily accomplishments.
It’s tough to feel productive when you haven’t left your house all day. But if you’re beating yourself up over how little you seem to be accomplishing, make a list of what you did get done on a certain day and then compare it to what you expected to do that day. “Often the lists are actually much closer” than you think, says Jackson, who recommends this tip as “a way to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can, but we're also doing better than we think.” Moles is a big fan of this approach. Lately she’s been writing a list of her daily achievements and including the small wins—like taking the trash out or folding laundry—alongside the big ones. This tactic, she says, “really, really” helps her mental health.
12. Create a toolbox of coping mechanisms.
It’s pretty much a given that you’re going to have challenging mental health moments, and it can be hard to know how to cope when you’re in the midst of them. Goldman recommends creating a mental “toolbox” of coping mechanisms—like meditation, running, calling a friend, or watching a favorite TV show—that you’ve practiced beforehand and can pull from when needed. Fill your toolbox with at least three tools, including a minimum of one tool that doesn’t require anybody else, or anything else, to complete (maybe a breathing exercise or meditation). That way, says Goldman, you’ll always have a coping mechanism at your fingertips.
13. Move your body.
Exercise is a proven mood booster, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all. “Different types of exercise can serve different purposes,” says Goldman. If you’re feeling anxious, for example, you may need to release pent-up nerves with a high-intensity form of exercise, like running or HIIT. If you’re feeling depressed and sluggish, a gentle walk or yoga session may be your better bet. Before you jump into a workout, take a moment to self-reflect and determine what your body—and your brain—really needs in that moment. (See tip #4.)
14. Expand your definition of therapy.
Therapy can be incredibly helpful if you’re struggling with quarantine depression (or any other type of mental health challenge). And you don’t necessarily need to go to traditional one-on-one therapy to see the benefits. “What therapy looks like can take many forms,” says Jackson. Group therapy, for instance, can be an effective way to find support in community and connect with others who are experiencing similar hardships. Do some online searching to see what options are available in your community—or consider an online format. Here are 28 low-cost or free online therapy resources to get you started.
Originally Appeared on Glamour