Depressed, or "Pandemic Grief’” ?

by Andrea Blundell
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Feeling numb, flat, and sad? Wondering if you are depressed, with all that is going on in the world? It’s possible.

But it could also be a case of pandemic-related grief.

Isn’t grief just about death?

No. It can relate to both losing loved ones OR things. As the NHS says on their bereavement page, “most people experience grief when they lose something or someone important to them.”

Grief, for example, is exerienced by those who are forced to leave a country due to war, or who learn they have a long-term and life-changing physical condition.

Grief can also be felt when we lose a lifestyle, a job that we identified with, a precious heirloom, or, in the case of covid-19, the very world we relied on.

Anticipatory grief

Wondering how it’s possible to be in a state of grief when you haven’t really lost that much? You were, say, already a freelancer, living in the countryside… and not much has changed? But you feel sad?

You might be experiencing what psychologists call ‘anticipatory grief’.

Anticipatory grief means we grieve in advance of a possible perceived loss. We know something inevitable lies ahead, and we start to emotionally ‘prepare’ for it, like a sort of coping mechanism.

The symptoms of grief

It’s easy to mistake grief and depression because they have most of their symptoms in common, such as:

But grief can have some symptoms that are less common with depression, such as:

  • feeling agitated or angry
  • bursts of manic energy where you try to ‘sort everything out’
  • panic attacks with physical symptoms like a pounding heart.

The five ‘stages’ of grief

The famous ‘five stages of grief’ are only a guideline for grieving, and are not prescriptive. You might find you go through only one or two of the steps, and in a totally different order.

The five stages are:

  • denial (refusing to believe what is happening)
  • anger (unable to understand how things are so unfair)
  • bargaining (negotiating with ‘god’, or trying to change your habits)
  • depression (hiding from friends, feelings of hopelessness)
  • acceptance (accepting what is and preparing for what is to come).

How are grief and depression different?

Grief is sadness due to something outside of yourself -- a loss of a person, situation, or thing.

Depression is sadness that is about yourself. It can be triggered by an event, but it looks inward. You are sad as you perceive that you aren’t good enough, are unloveable, are flawed, or can’t see how your life is worth living.

Are you going through grief or depression?

If you already experienced depression before Covid-19 started, then it’s possible that lockdown and social isolation has triggered it again for you. Ask yourself these questions to determine if it is grief or depression:

  1. Did I feel okay before covid-19 arrived? Or did I already have mood issues?
  2. Are my thoughts related to the pandemic? Am I sad about who might die, what life might look like, how I’ll cope? (Grief).
  3. Or are my thoughts about myself? How my life is now worthless, how I am not strong enough to get through this, how I have made a mess of my life and now pandemic has made it worse? (Depression).

Why pandemic grief is doubly hard

The thing about ‘pandemic grief’ that in some ways makes it harder than normal grief is that there are less people to turn to to be our support system, simply as so many of us are experiencing mood difficulties.

So while we can find many people to understand our feelings of sadness, which can be a great comfort? We might not have our ‘go to person’ because this time around they, too, are feeling down.

And if we are experiencing anticipatory grief and then DO lose someone we love to coronavirus, it might mean we are then more likely to have a difficult bereavement and go through depression. A study on the partners of deceased cancer patients found that anticipatory grief can see you struggle with actual bereavement more than usual.

Can grief turn into depression?

Yes. If you find that your thoughts have become very dark, and are attacking your own self worth, then it is more than time to reach out for support.

Feeling overwhelmed by how you are feeling during the pandemic? You don't have to be depressed to benefit from talk therapy. Book a session now to talk to a therapist about just how it can help you personally.

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