Sadness can be sneaky—subtle instead of all-encompassing, like anxiety and symptoms of depression may be. According to psychologist Allison Forti, PhD, the associate director of the online master’s in counseling program at Wake Forest University, feeling sad about coronavirus and all news related to it and social effects we're following on a precautionary basis is completely normal—even if you don't feel that you're in any immediate danger yourself. "Sadness is a reaction to fear, uncertainty, isolation, life-altering changes, and existential reflection," she says. But though it may be harder to notice, there are still strategies you can employ to work on healing and dealing with it.
"Sadness is a reaction to fear, uncertainty, isolation, life-altering changes, and existential reflection." —psychologist Allison Forti, PhD
Below, Dr. Forti, along with Lisa Henshaw, PhD, LCSW, licensed psychotherapist with therapy group Alma, provide more insight into why you may be experiencing COVID-19-related sadness, plus tips on the best ways to overcome it.
3 reasons you may feel gloomy and sad about coronavirus
One of the major root causes of sadness related to everything happening right now, according to Dr. Henshaw, is a sense of powerlessness. "There's a lack of control over one's daily routine, which can contribute to low-level sadness," she says. While virtually everyone has experienced a disrupted routine, at some point or another, when that has to do with the way in which we carry out our work—i.e., how we spend a majority of our waking time—it can lead to a sense of sadness. "Work provides a sense or purpose, so when that's taken away [or altered], even temporarily, it can affect how someone derives meaning from their days," she says.
Furthermore, the mere notion of compromised health can be a rude awakening to many. "Most Americans are not accustomed to this and become rattled when their sense of safety and security are challenged, especially when it rubs against their values of individualism, autonomy, and freedom," Dr. Forti says. So, even if you aren't directly affected by COVID-19, reading the news of how it's affecting others can be a lot to handle. "All of these reflections can lead a person to feel morose and down, even if the actual personal threat is somewhat innocuous for many," Dr. Forti says.
Then, of course, there's the social distancing component, which can lead to a heady amount of sadness, to be sure. "Humans are wired for social connection; that's how we thrive," Dr. Henshaw says. While at first, the idea of having time home alone may have sounded blissful, those feelings are bound to wane.
When you think of all of this combined, it's a lot. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome feeling sad about coronavirus and the current realities of the world in which we're living.
8 tips to deal (and heal) when you find yourself feeling sad about coronavirus
1. acknowledge what's happening
"This is really the first step," Dr. Henshaw says. "If we try to resist what's happening, then the potential is for anxiety to exacerbate. Realizing, 'okay, I'm in this situation and there are things out of my control,' and then giving yourself space to process that is important."
Dr. Forti echoes this sentiment, adding that it's also helpful to remind yourself that you aren't in this situation alone. "Have compassion for yourself, being aware of your feelings, and not judging them," she says. "Allow them to come and go, and realize that you are connected to millions of people in the same situation, trying to cope and figure it out just like you are."
2. practice mindfulness
Even if you've never tried meditating or yoga before, now is the time. "Meditation and mindfulness helps calm the biological stress response," Dr. Henshaw says. And if meditation isn't your thing, try other ways to practice mindfulness, including going for a walk or even organizing your closet. (Hey, whatever you're into!)
3. add structure to your day
No matter what your home life looks like right now, Dr. Henshaw says structure and sticking to certain daily habits can be key for maintaining a healthy headspace. "It's important to develop a routine for this new, modified life that we're finding ourselves in," she says.
"It's important to develop a routine for this new, modified life that we're finding ourselves in." —psychotherapist Lisa Henshaw, PhD
Get dressed. Make a to-do list. If you're able to do your job, do it. Nourish yourself with good food. Go for a walk. Doing things like these, she says, helps create a sense of control in a time when so much else is out of your control.
4. focus on your purpose for each day
Because feeling a sense of purpose is directly linked to happiness, Dr. Henshaw says to spend a few minutes in the morning thinking about what your purpose for the day will be. If you're able to work virtually, it may be tied to what you will get done that day. Or maybe, your purpose is taking care of your kids, checking in on loved ones, or helping someone in need. Whatever it is, it should be something you can end each day feeling accomplished for having completed.
5. call or facetime the people you love
Both experts emphasize the importance of connecting to friends and family virtually right now. Just because you can't hang out IRL doesn't mean you can't have virtual phone dates, coffee or wine in hand just like you would in person. "Having the ability to video call is a great option, including for group chats," Dr. Henshaw says. "Connecting virtually will really help buffer that feeling of social isolation."
6. move your body
Okay, so your favorite fitness studio is closed, but you can still go for a run or walk, or work out at home. Even minimal exercise is connected with feeling happier.
7. put a time cap on how long you spend reading the news
The COVID-19 news cycle is constant. While it's important to stay informed, Dr. Forti and Dr. Henshaw both recommend limiting news reading to a designated time of day (or few times a day), and then taking a break. "Another suggestion is to subscribe to a news outlet that offers a daily summary so you stay updated on relevant headlines without feeling bogged down with the volume," Dr. Forti says.
For the most accurate up-to-date information for COVID-19 updates, check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website.
8. know when to seek professional help
Both experts say that if what you're feeling is impacting your daily ability to function, don't hesitate to reach out to a therapist who you can talk to over the phone or video. "Developmentally, appropriate sadness to an extreme situation can turn more serious when a person begins to feel sad nearly every day for most of the day and can no longer experience moments of happiness or joy," Dr. Forti says.
Some signs of what this looks like: not enjoying activities you used to enjoy, being unable to sleep, a change in appetite, and trouble concentrating. "We are all affected in different ways, and there is absolutely no shame in seeking help," Dr. Henshaw adds.
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