What you probably already know: depression and social isolation–due to COVID precautions or otherwise–don’t mix well. But what is the depression loop and how is it affected by social isolation?
Picture this: iIt’s 8 pm on a Saturday night, and my teen is ignoring his phone.
Weird, right? Maybe even bizarre behavior from a 16-year-old? Not if you know he is currently battling both depression and social isolation due to COVID.
Depression is often described as a vicious cycle. The symptoms of depression often include low energy, lack of motivation, and a feeling of not getting pleasure from things you used to enjoy. A lack of enjoyment and energy leads you to withdraw, isolate yourself, and stop doing things, which leads to even lower energy and lack of motivation.
This is what’s known as the depression loop. Add the challenges of social isolation and COVID-related stress, and depression can be even harder to handle, in either yourself or your child or teen.
In my teen, this ‘depression loop’ resulted in him withdrawing from his social circle at a time when he needed his friends the most. Instead of jumping onto group texts and live video games with his peers, his depression prompted him to push his phone (and his only access to his friends) away.
Depression and social isolation: what you need to know
Depression often begins with a specific event that triggers the symptoms and feelings of depression. Usually, such an event could be losing a job, or the memory of a previous event, like losing a loved one. Obviously, 2020 brought situations like these in masse, with parents losing jobs due to COVID, and everyone feeling isolated from friends and extended family. For kids and teens, depression and COVID can intersect in multiple additional ways: distance learning can isolate kids from spontaneous interaction with peers, different methods of remote learning can prompt a sense of failure, and the loss of activities, sports, and social clubs can leave kids and teens with a sense of loss (as well as at a loss to fill their days).
The experience of any of these events can cause feelings of sadness, anxiety, or despair. Those emotions lead to behaviors of inactivity and isolation, like staying inside, avoiding friend phone calls, and cancelling plans to do things that are enjoyable. In addition to avoiding his friends, my teen withdrew from the few activities he could still participate in, which he had previously found joy in, such as virtual speech & debate and theater.
This type of avoidance and isolation can create another series of events: friends stop calling and texting because you never want to go out anymore or kids’ school work piles up because he’s avoiding it. Here we are, back in that vicious cycle. For my teen, this led to greater isolation as he feel guilty that he wasn’t meeting his responsibilities and lonely because friends were no longer calling. He was also bored, yet couldn’t find any activities to hold his interest.
What to do about depression and social isolation:
This loop can continue indefinitely if you don’t take steps to interrupt the loop.
Behavioral Activation (BA) is a therapeutic treatment that can be used to disrupt the depression cycle. With the help of a trained therapist, kids and teens can be guided to understand their triggers for depression and the behaviors that they choose when they are depressed. From there, they can be coached to create a plan to help create new behaviors that are more effective. This process is called activation and will help to systematically stop the depression cycle, as you and your teen learn new ways of setting up their environment for success.
For my teen, setting new patterns of behavior helped break the cycle. Using a ‘fake it until you make it’ approach, we set routines he would follow daily, whether he ‘felt like it’ or not. First, the obvious: every morning, he would sign into his Zoom classes for distance learning, even if he felt uninspired to join Algebra that day. Every afternoon, he’d get physical exercise and fresh air, whether he walked the dog or learned new skateboarding tricks. And every evening, he’d check in with at least one trusted friend.
When he felt depression settle in, it also helped for him to identify the immediate trigger, and document his feelings and responses in a journal. (Kids and teens can also use apps such as Calm or Headspace LINK for this purpose.
If you have a kid or teen dealing with the dual issues of depression and social isolation due to COVID, seek professional help and encourage your child to break the depression loop and set new patterns of behavior.