The former First Lady shared how her mental health has been affected by not just the coronavirus pandemic, but also racial inequality.

By Allie Strickler
August 06, 2020
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Michelle Obama has long been a leader in mental health advocacy. During her time in the White House, the former First Lady dedicated much of her work to breaking down mental health stigma and launching initiatives to support people with mental illness.

Now, she’s using her platform to speak openly about the recent highs and lows she’s experienced with her mental health as a result of not just the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but also the current (and longheld) state of racial inequality in the U.S.

In the latest episode of her eponymous podcast, Obama spoke with journalist Michele Norris about their new quarantine routines and the importance of self-care during these uncertain times. (Related: Why You Might Be Experiencing Quarantine Fatigue—and How to Deal with It)

For Obama, adjusting to a new routine as a result of the pandemic has been particularly challenging, she shared during the podcast episode. Her sleep schedule has been “off,” and she often wakes up in the middle of the night feeling “heavy” or “worrying about something,” she explained. (See: How and Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Messing with Your Sleep)

Even though working out is usually one of her go-to means of self-care, Obama admitted she’s sometimes been feeling “too low” lately to stay motivated.

“I’ve gone through those emotional highs and lows that I think everybody feels, where you just don’t feel [like] yourself,” shared Obama. “Sometimes there has been a week or so where I had to surrender to that [feeling], and not be so hard on myself and say, ‘You know what? You’re just not feeling that treadmill right now.’”

Norris then aptly pointed out that that lack of motivation was “unusual” for Obama—someone who has a real zest for life and is known to be extremely passionate about fitness. “It is unusual, and it’s a direct result of just being out-of-body, out-of-mind,” said Obama. “I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression—not just because of the quarantine, but because of the racial strife, and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting.” (Related: Kerry Washington and Activist Kendrick Sampson Spoke About Mental Health In the Fight for Racial Justice)

What is low-grade depression?

Losing interest in things you used to enjoy (i.e. exercise) is “one of the core symptoms of depression,” low-grade or otherwise, says Myra Altman, Ph.D., vice president of clinical care at Modern Health.

“Depression is characterized by a cluster of symptoms, including depressed mood and/or a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities,” explains Altman. Other symptoms of depression can include significant changes in appetite or weight, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and thoughts or plans of suicide, among other symptoms, she says.

But what makes low-grade depression different from other forms of depression, such as major depressive disorder?

“Low-grade depression differs from major depressive disorder in that the symptoms are typically less severe,” explains Catherine Richardson, M.A., L.P.C., C.C.P.T., a therapist at Talkspace. “An individual [with low-grade depression] is generally able to carry on with their normal day-to-day tasks without much interruption to functionality.” Someone with major depressive disorder, on the other hand, would likely experience a noticeable change in their ability to perform well at work, engage in relationships, and complete regular, everyday activities, says Richardson.

“An individual with major depressive disorder may completely disengage from their social life during a depressive episode,” she adds. “An individual with low-level depression will continue to engage with others, but a lower rate than before and with less enjoyment.”

Another important difference between low-grade depression and major depressive disorder: the way you experience (or don’t experience) emotions. “Those with low-level depression may be irritated by triggers that are normally neutral or become sad at a rude comment that they can usually shrug off,” explains Richardson. While someone with major depressive disorder may occasionally experience similar bouts of irritability and sadness, typically they feel a larger "absence of emotions," notes Richardson.

As Obama shared of her own experience, low-grade depression can be caused by factors in your environment, including world events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the police brutality and racism in the U.S., says Richardson. That said, low-grade depression can also happen as a result of individual genetic differences or chemical imbalances that contribute to occasional cycles of mild depression, adds Richardson. (Related: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)

Of course, Obama is definitely not alone in feeling this way, ever, but especially right now. A recent Census Bureau survey found that roughly 30 percent of U.S. adults are reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety, up from about 11 percent in the first half of 2019. (On the flip side, here’s how quarantine can potentially impact your mental health for the better.)

From Obama’s perspective, navigating the lows requires “knowing yourself,” and “knowing how to replenish yourself with the things that do bring you joy,” she said on her podcast. A lot of that comes down to maintaining a consistent routine and schedule—even when the motivation to do so just isn’t there, she shared. For her, that means getting a workout in when she doesn’t necessarily want to, or trying to get outside more frequently, or even just sticking to regular dinnertimes with her family, she explained.

“My spirit is lifted when I am feeling healthy [and] when I am surrounded by good people,” continued Obama. “I reach out to my family and my friends. I fight to continue to find a way to stay connected to the people in my life who bring me joy.”

While managing low-grade depression can also entail things such as medication or therapy, lifestyle changes like Obama laid out can go a long way in benefiting your mental health, notes Altman. “Having a structured routine can be really helpful, [along with] making sure that you are finding time to engage in exercise and in activities that will improve your mood,” she explains. (See: The Biggest Mental and Physical Benefits of Working Out)

“Making time for friendships, exercise, and sleep can make a world of difference for one’s mental health,” adds Richardson.

If you can relate to Obama’s experiences with low-grade depression, know that it’s not something to brush off, notes Altman. “While people might minimize mild depression, it’s really important to be as proactive as possible in getting support and making changes,” she says. (Related: Accessible and Supportive Mental Health Resources for Black Womxn)

Whether that means considering therapy, medication, or just approaching your day-to-day a little differently, give yourself what you need to feel better and move forward, adds Richardson. “Wherever you decide to begin, the best first step is to listen to your body, give it what it needs, and invite someone else into the conversation.”

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