How to Avoid Depression During the Coronavirus Outbreak

As more people self-isolate to reduce the spread of COVID-19, an expert offers tips on how to prevent depression during the crisis.

Depressed woman looking out window

The outbreak of the new coronavirus has affected many areas of daily life, including mental health. With the sudden disruption of our routines and the new norm of social distancing, life as we knew it has dramatically transformed in a matter of weeks. Suddenly, many of us are facing the stress of the news—and its impact on our finances—alone, putting us at risk for depression during the coronavirus outbreak.

“This is the perfect storm for depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Robert Leahy, an attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, the author of The Worry Cure and Keeping Your Head After Losing Your Job, and a national expert in cognitive therapy.

With everything going on, people can find themselves ruminating, feeling hopeless and helpless, and, ultimately, depressed. The National Institute for Mental Health defines depression as a common but serious mood disorder that negatively affects how you feel, think, and handle daily activities such as sleeping, eating, and working. Symptoms include a persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood, irritability, and feelings of guilt and pessimism.

“We are facing a national trauma, whether it’s the fear of being infected or infecting someone else, or the economic downturn, and many people are isolated,” Dr. Leahy says.

Those who already struggle with depression and anxiety may find the situation exacerbates their feelings. Others who are used to keeping busy may suddenly find themselves alone with their thoughts more, and missing friends and family outside of their household.

While the need to maintain social distance creates some obstacles, there are specific steps you can take to “make the best of the worst,” according to Dr. Leahy. Here, he lays out ways to protect your mental health and prevent depression during the coronavirus outbreak.

Find the hope

This may sound impossible during a difficult time, but rather than think, “This is the rest of my life,” take it day by day or week by week. Take a step back and see there is reason to be hopeful. For example, in Wuhan Province in China, where the outbreak began, the reported number of new cases has dropped significantly and on some days has been zero, thanks to quarantining measures. Stores and factories are beginning to reopen. By seeing solutions that worked for those communities and continuing to take serious precautions, we are increasing the chances that the future is not as hopeless or extreme as we fear.

For individuals feeling the financial impact of the coronavirus, a silver lining may be especially hard to find during this time. Try to adjust your mindset: If you’ve lost work, rather than seeing this as a permanent situation, think of it as the time in between returning to work. Once the pandemic emergency is over, there will be pent-up demand — everyone will be eager to go out to restaurants and travel, so many of those jobs will be there again.

Be productive with your free time

Rather than thinking of isolating as being in prison, you can see it as having more free time. Try to find moments of happiness in this freedom. Make a list of activities you can engage in. You can still go outside to exercise, or go online to find an exercise or yoga video. Read the books and watch the movies you’ve been meaning to. Get around to the chores you’ve put off, like cleaning your closets. Get creative about cooking. Maybe you’ve been ordering takeout for a while and forgot you have a kitchen.

A risk that goes along with isolation and passivity is the tendency to ruminate and have thoughts like: “Why is this happening? This is so terrible, I can’t stand it.” You can either ruminate or you can problem-solve. Ask yourself: “What’s the problem? I’m bored, I’m in isolation. OK, so I could exercise, I can contact people, I can make plans and do chores. I can look at this as a challenge to identify short-term and long-term goals.”


“Just because we are self-isolating doesn’t mean we need to truly isolate ourselves.”

— Dr. Robert Leahy


Keep a schedule

Lots of folks have lost their usual routines, and that unstructured time can also lead to rumination and passivity, high risk factors for depression. Schedule your day, down to the hour. At the end of the day, check things off and make a to-do list for the next day, so you can look forward to things. Create a set of goals for the week and for the month, then make some longer-term goals.

It’s especially important to keep structure if you’ve lost your job. It’s natural for people to be upset when they’re unemployed. In addition to the financial issues, they lose the structure in their lives. One way of coping is to structure your time.

Connect with others (even if not face-to-face)

Just because we are self-isolating doesn’t mean we need to truly isolate ourselves. Make a list of friends, including some you haven’t had contact with in a long time, and use your phone as a telephone. Set up a regular time each day to contact people, and schedule virtual get-togethers on online platforms to talk or maybe even play games. You could start a book club online with your friends.

If you have a loved one in the hospital or going through a hard time, it’s easy to feel helpless, especially if you can’t visit or help them feel better. But you can always tell people you love them and care about them. We often underestimate how important it is to express connection, love, and gratitude. And we can do that on an ongoing basis, not just when someone is sick.

Reframe your perspective

It’s OK to feel upset and to acknowledge to yourself and to others these are difficult times. Yet this could be an opportunity to think about what you value or really want to do with your life. If you look at this period as intentional practice of not going out to restaurants and bars, you may realize you can thrive without those routines. When the pandemic subsides and the emergency is lifted, you may find you appreciate the freedom to go to the gym or hang out with your friends even more.

The pandemic may raise thoughts of mortality. A positive way of thinking about mortality is to recognize what’s really important to you in life, which might be having meaningful relationships, contributing to the betterment of society, or being creative.

Just because we can’t interact with people face-to-face doesn’t mean we need to be isolated and passive. It’s normal to feel anxious, but we can process the experience, keep active and connected, maintain as much of a routine as we can, and build resilience as we weather the crisis.

Robert Leahy, Ph.D., is an attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. He is the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy NYC and the author of The Worry Cure.