I think we can all agree that the past seven months have not been easy for anyone. Humans are, for the most part, social creatures, so it’s difficult to maintain an emotional equilibrium when we lose regular contact with others. Zoom just doesn’t cut it. Many of us have noted more lability in our moods, and some may even consider themselves depressed. This is all normal and even to be expected. In fact, the medical community has a term for it – adjustment disorder.
Adjustment disorders are stress-related conditions. When an individual experiences more stress than usual, related to an event or circumstances, it can trigger an emotional response and some neurochemical variability, leading to sustained feelings of being blue. These neurochemical variables include decreased levels of dopamine and serotonin, which are known as the “happy hormones,” and increased levels of cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone. Emotions are always cyclical; however, after an extended period of time, adjustment disorder might be diagnosed by a clinician. Criteria for a diagnosis include an event or events that can be pinpointed as a cause of sadness or anxiety within three months of the stressful event. Adjustment disorder typically lasts no longer than six months. However, one caveat is that chronic adjustment disorders can last for longer than six months if the stressor is ongoing…say, for instance, during a pandemic.
What are symptoms of adjustment disorder? Every person is different, but they can include frequent crying, worrying, anxiety, sustained feelings of hopelessness or sadness, difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, lack of appetite or overeating, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty concentrating, avoiding important tasks, and withdrawing from social support. When we first went into lockdown, there were so many unknowns and societal anxiety skyrocketed. The continued influx of bad news such as Covid mortality rates, PPE shortages, unemployment rates, natural disasters, political turmoil, and social unrest continue to add fuel to existing anxiety and stress. You may be wondering what you can do to help ease the suffering. Here are some tips:
- The first step is acknowledging the symptoms and creating a plan to tackle them head on. For the majority of people suffering through adjustment disorder, symptoms are temporary.
- The timeline of Covid remains uncertain. By reminding yourself that you will get through this, it can become a mantra and improve your mental state
- Address your feelings. Acknowledging and labeling emotions give them less power over you.
- Be proactive whenever possible. If there are interventions that you can implement which will alleviate some of your concerns, do them. Budgets help with financial stressors. Eating healthy and exercise prevents quarantine weight gain. Keeping in contact with friends and family helps with loneliness. Small actions can go a long way.
- Develop positive coping mechanisms. There are more ways to handle stress than drinking a bottle of wine. Distractions can be a great technique – i.e. picking up a good book, starting a podcast, or volunteering. Meditation is a transformative and healthy escape too, Take the app, headspace, for instance. And, sometimes, you just need a break from the news – and that is okay!
Adjustment disorder is, for the most part, short-term. However, if feelings of sadness begin to interfere with school, work, or your personal relationships, it may be time to consider some professional help. Many insurance companies are currently waiving copays and deductibles for mental health. BetterHelp, the largest online counseling platform in the world, makes professional counseling available anytime, anywhere. It is one of the major players in the online therapy space. Of course, there is also ZocDoc, which can connect you to in-person and virtual mental health providers, based on your insurance. Whether you decide to talk to a loved one or a professional, remember you are not in this alone. We will get through this.