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Why Do People Get Depressed During the Pandemic?

Depression is on the upswing; a psychiatrist uncovers new reasons why.

Key points

  • The pandemic may disrupt our accustomed, yet pathological, ways of relating to others, and accentuate our inflexible roles in relationships.
  • Guilt, self-devaluation, and depression may occur when we do not live up to who we think we should be and to who we were pre-pandemic.
  • The road to psychological health involves scrutiny of the relationship patterns you learned in childhood and tweaking them for the better.

Many people seek psychological help because of depression and anxiety. Such complaints are more frequent during the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic had led to a tremendous amount of emotional upset and suffering. People grieve over the death of family members. They fear catching coronavirus, are quarantined, wearing masks, not venturing away often from home, having financial problems, feeling isolated, bored, lonely, and generally upended.

Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash
Source: Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash

Being a dynamic psychotherapist, I am accustomed to helping people probe deeply into their emotional selves. This means looking at their childhood to discover what their personality development has been and what coping styles they learned at an early age. I describe these concepts in my book, Living on Automatic––How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships, co-authored with Homer B. Martin, M.D.

When people come for help, I want to understand their symptoms and how they came about. I dig deeply, seeking to discover why this person is depressed in his or her own way during the pandemic.

New Findings About Depression During the Pandemic

I am making new discoveries about how coronavirus leads to depression and anxiety.

  • Coronavirus disrupts each of us differently depending on our personality and the ways we were emotionally conditioned during our childhood.
  • Coronavirus prevents us from carrying out our established ways of being with others—our patterns of relationship roles—that fully elaborate our personality style.
  • This role failure creates emotional distress and emotional illness in the form of depression and anxiety.
  • We have problems being flexible with the roles learned in childhood. Such roles operate in a fixed way and kick in automatically, despite our best intentions.
  • Our lack of role flexibility creates depression and anxiety symptoms.
  • Discovering your role, learning how it automatically kicks in, and making changes to your relationship style reduce emotional distress and lessen depression and anxiety.
Yuris Alhumaydy/Unsplash
Source: Yuris Alhumaydy/Unsplash

Case Example

Ruth, a 67-year-old grandmother, has been widowed for five years. She has three children and four grandchildren, all nearby. She has two siblings in far-away states. She lives alone.

During the pandemic, she has deteriorated. She rarely bathes, sleeps poorly, and rarely wants to leave the house, even for walks in her neighborhood. She does grocery pick-up at the store. She spends her days reading but has trouble concentrating. She tries to knit but drops stitches as she cannot pay attention. She even has a difficult time watching television movies, which she enjoys. She talks some on the phone with family but does not feel “fulfilled” by doing this. What creates her depression?

Ruth is depressed because she cannot function in her usual role. She has been expected her whole life to give inordinate care to most other people. She customarily has hosted all birthdays, graduations, and holiday gatherings at her home. She has been the main babysitter for her grandchildren. She takes her grandkids out shopping, to movies, and to school activities.

During the pandemic, Ruth is out of her usual role. She feels guilt and remorse that she cannot “do” for everyone the way she used to. Depression ensues. She devalues herself because she cannot be her usual self and do it all for so many people.

Her early emotional conditioning shaped her to give far too much to others. This role harmed her. During the pandemic, she is unable to shut down her automatic need to caretake others excessively. She still expects herself to be the “perfect” caregiver she feels she should be, regardless of the changed circumstances during the pandemic.

Case Example Treatment

During therapy with Ruth, we explore her childhood emotional conditioning and how she learned to dispense too much care to other people. Next, we work on determining how reasonable this role is both before and especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Would another way of being or doing things be more reasonable and helpful to her, and be less pathological? Would a new approach lessen her depression and help her feel better by living life differently with her family?

We help her learn to catch the “automatic” expectations and behaviors to give to everyone, even when she cannot. These times kick in like knee-jerk reactions. To do this, we work on increasing her observations of herself—how and when does she feel, think, and behave the ways she does? Ruth learns to identify when her automatic system takes over.

Anthony Metcalfe/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Metcalfe/Unsplash

As Ruth learns to self-observe and better catch herself before sliding into her conditioned ways of thinking and behaving, her depression lessens. She gets better. She becomes more comfortable making less contact with family by phone and by learning to use Facetime and Zoom. She improves by restraining her expectations of herself, to not be a total caregiver to her family all the time, especially during this pandemic.

During the pandemic, I have seen Ruth’s pattern repeatedly. People become depressed and anxious because they cannot behave in the pathological ways they did before the pandemic.

There is a way out. People can recognize that their prior functioning was not healthy. They can grow and dispense with earlier patterns of relating to others. This allows them to stop being anxious and depressed. This enables them to lead more reasonable lives, symptom-free.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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