Michelle Obama Talks About Having “Low-Grade Depression.” Do You Have It Too?

Feeling distressed is common right now. A psychiatrist gives advice on how to handle it.

For the second episode of her new podcast, Michelle Obama discussed the relationship we have with ourselves, in 2020, when nothing is as it once was. “The change can be a lot, and it can feel heavy,” she says, “and we’re left to deal with this stuff at a moment when we’re forced to spend more time alone, more time in our heads, than we’re used to.” Such changes, Obama says, and the way we’ve been forced to digest them, have caused her to have “low-grade depression.”

She’s hardly alone. According to a recent survey, Canadians are experiencing much higher levels of anxiety and depression than at the start of the pandemic. What’s more, self-reported cases of depression have increased from 4 percent at the start of COVID-19 to 10 percent.

Feeling distressed right now is understandable, says Dr. Georgina M. Zahirney, president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, considering the world events that have taken place in the last few months. “There have been periods where I just have felt too low,” she said. “I’ve gone through those emotional highs and lows that I think everybody feels, where you just don’t feel yourself.”

Many (all?) of us can relate. So we asked Dr. Zahirney how to know if you have some form of depression and how to cope.

What is “low-grade depression”?

“Low-grade depression” isn’t a diagnostic term, says Dr. Zahirney, but a reflection of feeling depressed, and having some symptoms—feelings of sadness or having trouble sleeping—of depression.

How do you know if you’re feeling low-grade depression or are clinically depressed?

“Feeling sad, low, or anxious is a response to a stressful situation,” says Dr. Zahirney, “and those would be normal, expectable feelings in extremely disruptive and distressing world situations.” Changes in mood, energy level, and sleep troubles are common, especially during this time. But if they become persistent and impact your ability to do daily activities, that could be a sign of a disorder, and you should talk to your doctor. Constant negative thoughts—like feeling guilty or worthless—can also be common, but if they cause you to be in extreme distress, seek clinical attention, says Dr. Zahirney.

How can you get out of this funk?

On her podcast, Obama said when she was living in the White House with her family, in order to “stay sane and feel like the human you once were,” they had to have a routine—which she’s also maintained in quarantine. Dr. Zahirney also values structure and suggests integrating pleasurable activities into your day to help lift your mood. Use healthy methods to manage stress and anxiety, like exercising and yoga, as well as connecting and taking care of others, says Dr. Zahirney.  “That gives ourselves a sense of meaning and purpose in a time when we don’t feel grounded,” she says.

Is it better to feel the feels or block out and avoid?

The day after sharing she has “low-grade depression,” Obama hopped on Instagram to tell her followers, “I hope you all are allowing yourselves to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.” Dr. Zahirney agrees with Obama. “Feeling distressed in a stressful situation is a normal part of human experience,” she says. Allow yourself to grieve things that are changing or feel sad or feel nervous, but don’t stay in that place, says Dr. Zahirney. Process your feelings, then move on with purpose.

Next, check out our tips for making the most of summer 2020.