When she relocated to a new town last year far from friends and family, had her second child, and then lockdown hit her husband’s business hard, Kate* says she felt like her “world just seemed a little greyer”.
“I wasn’t depressed as such. I got out of bed every day, poured my son his cereal, played with him, took care of his baby sister. I was – and am – functioning. I still laugh at things. But for some time now, I’ve also felt this heavy, low-level sense of sadness that I can’t shake off. And lockdown has given me more time than usual to feel it, and to miss my family.”
It seems Kate isn’t alone. In the second edition of her podcast, which aired this week, Michelle Obama said she had been suffering from “low-grade depression”, prompted by lockdown and racial and political conflicts in the US.
“I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression,” the former First Lady told Michele Norris, a US journalist and Washington Post columnist. “Not just because of the quarantine, but because of the racial strife, and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting.”
Obama also said she often woke in the night worrying about something, or because “there’s a heaviness”.
“I’ve gone through those emotional highs and lows that I think everybody feels, where you just don’t feel yourself, and sometimes... there has been a week or so where I had to surrender to that and not be so hard on myself.”
According to the mental health charity Mind, one in six people experiences a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression, in any given week in England. However, new research by the charity found that 60 per cent of people say their mental health has worsened during lockdown, but one third (31 per cent) didn’t seek help because they didn’t feel their problem was serious enough.
“I think Michelle has touched on something very important here and, until recently, not often spoken about,” says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. “Speaking up about low-level depression can often feel like you’re belittling ‘proper’ depression, the kind that renders you incapable of getting out of bed, but that’s not the case. The fact it allows you to function well doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect your life. It does. And it’s exhausting.”
Blair says when we experience even low-level depression, our bodies throw out the stress hormone cortisol. “If that goes on for longer than six to eight weeks, our cortisol levels become fixed at that level and we have chronic high cortisol. That means we’re on constant alert; the slightest thing wakes us up and we see danger, or disaster, everywhere.
“The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated things, but for many people it was there long before it.”
Lucy* says she has felt something akin to low-grade depression ever since her son was diagnosed with autism last year. “He’s high-functioning and mostly happy,” she says. “But there are challenges with his anxiety and fitting in with friends. We’re applying for secondary schools this year, and various experts have told me the ‘wheels often fall off’ when children like my son are in the tougher, less forgiving environment of secondary school. It leaves me with a heaviness at the back of mind and some days it feels heavier than others.”
John Read, a professor in clinical psychology at the University of East London, says that while low-level depression can affect your ability to enjoy life, it’s also important not to rush to diagnose it as a problem that requires medical treatment.
“Sadness is a normal and necessary response to sad events,” he says. “And for some, lockdown has worsened it. There are parents struggling to cope, older people living alone, people who have lost their jobs.”
The key to stop it developing, says Prof Read, is to see it as events-based, and therefore not permanent. “Take the person whose business is struggling, or is overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world. When you’re in the eye of the storm, it’s easy to assume you’re always going to feel this way. But you won’t.”
Lastly, Prof Read says that psychologists often talk about behavioural activation therapy. Which is? “Simply doing things that activate good feelings.”
It’s something that has helped Rob*, 42, a solicitor with a leading City law firm. He says: “I’ve struggled with low moods on and off since my teenage years. I saw a new therapist earlier this year who asked me what I enjoyed doing. I told him I loved writing and playing music on my piano. ‘How often do you do that?’ he asked me. ‘Never,’ I replied, ‘because I have a busy job and two young children.’ But he told me how important it is to find time for the things we love, which for me is music. It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s helped enormously.”
“It sounds clichéd and overly simple, but happiness can often be found by doing more of what makes us happy,” says Prof Read.
*Names have been changed
Developing coping mechanisms is key
Although a diagnosis of major depression requires a cluster of symptoms such as disturbed sleep or appetite and feelings of worthlessness, many of us suffer the two key symptoms – constant low mood, and loss of pleasure and interest in activities we used to enjoy.
Sadly, most who feel this way merely endure it because they consider it unworthy of attention. After all, it’s not “real” depression, is it? Maybe not, but it’s suffering nonetheless, as Michelle Obama was honest enough to admit.
What can you do to ease – and eventually heal – chronic low-grade depression?
Acknowledge it: trying to hide mental distress is like trying to hide a brick by shoving it underneath a rug. The shape is still there, ready to trip you up.
Own it: see if you can figure out why you feel so low. The most common reason is a sense of helplessness that often goes with loss – of a loved one, job, financial security. You’ll only be able to start looking for solutions if you acknowledge your distress.
Stop comparing: two of the most pernicious aspects of modern society are the pressure to compare and the need to do better than others. Unfortunately, suffering exists on a level playing field – everyone’s suffering is for them the worst they know.
So don’t dismiss your distress as trivial compared with that of others. Instead, face it, share it, and find ways to alleviate it. You’ll not only feel better, you’ll find it better to help others.
Share it: I don’t mean broadcast your woes to all. Instead, set aside time to talk to a good friend or family member who’s likely to understand. Just talking about your problems will help you accept them and start feeling you can take back control. Other people may offer better ways of coping.
Allow time: we seem to have lost the gift of patience. Nowadays we’re expected to “get over it” almost immediately. But psychological healing takes time. Be as kind to yourself as you would to your best friend as you come to terms with your distress, and look to find joy and balance in your life once again.
The Daily Telegraph