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  • Writer's picturePeggy Spear

A ‘Perfect Storm’ For Depression Will Make us Grittier

I don’t know if you’re like me but I’m starting 2021 feeling like I’ve been rolled in dirt, dragged through dog dung and slathered in a whole lot of grime.

The year 2020 was the most difficult for me ever, with a pandemic – a flippin’ worldwide pandemic! – racial strife (that was warranted), an election with the losing party refusing to concede, and my own emotional turmoil.

But all I needed to get through it was a bit of grit.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with one of the world’s top experts on grit, Dr. Rena Kirkland, an associate professor of psychology at Adams State University in Colorado.

“We like to call it, ‘Embracing the Suck,’” Kirkland says. “That’s when you experience growth.”

She is referring to her studies on grit: Grinding through Resistance to an Irritable Target.” Doing so will increase life’s satisfactions, optimism and happiness, she believes.

“We don’t choose grit – we don’t know when it will come,” Kirkland says. “But people can experience authentic happiness when experiencing grit, and coming out the other side.”

That’s hard to remember when you’re experiencing one of 2020’s main issues: a massive increase in depression and anxiety. A psychological survey of 10,368 American adults amid the coronavirus pandemic in August found that the pandemic has led to higher levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and psychological trauma.

Other experts have found the same thing: A Scientific American article cited a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also published in August, that found a tripling of anxiety symptoms and a quadrupling of depression among 5,470 adults surveyed, compared with a 2019 sample. Similarly, two nationally representative surveys conducted in April, one by researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health and another at Johns Hopkins University, found that the prevalence of depressive symptoms and “serious psychological distress” were triple the level measured in 2018.

“These rates were higher than what we've seen after other large-scale traumas like September 11th, Hurricane Katrina and the Hong Kong unrest,” says Catherine Ettman, lead author of the B.U. study.

It’s not hard to see why. The outbreak of the new coronavirus affected many areas of daily life, including and maybe especially 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, reported Healthline.

“This is the perfect storm for depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Robert Leahy, an attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center told Healthline.

There are things you can do to help get through this trauma and come out grittier. According to many psychologists, limiting media consumption and avoiding sensationalist reports is one. Maintaining social contacts — via Zoom, phone or other COVID-safe methods — is also vital, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin, told Yahoo.

Fewer hugs and less shared grieving may help explain why people do not seem to be adjusting to the new normal, Pennebaker says. “This is not 9/11 or an earthquake, where something big happens, and we all get back to normal pretty quickly.”

It's not bad to want to get back to normal -- I want it now. But is that the best for me or, face it, what's really going to happen?

"People who want immediate gratification aren’t gritty – they’re not embracing the journey," Kirkland told me. “Hedonistic ways are not the answer to true happiness, and can lead to depression, substance abuse, poor relationships and other ailments. Grit requires passion and perseverance.”

I really wouldn’t call 2020 a year of passion and perseverance, but then I think about it more closely. Some amazing things happened. Some brilliant scientists created several vaccines for COVID-19 in record speed; people stood up for racial injustice, and many people learned from the peaceful protests and marches. (In fact, my someday-to-be son-in-law, in the Army Reserves, spent a few days in Sacramento during the June protests ‘to monitor safety” and said it felt like a festive, loving gathering.) And finally, new, effective national leadership is poised to leap in and help us get back to normal come Jan. 20.

I won’t talk about the failures of this 2020. This story is about surviving the suck, learning from it and coming out stronger, grittier. It will get better.

Take a time-out if you need to, and remember that it's fine to not celebrate the New Year if you're not feeling up to it. Things will get better and easier in 2021, but it’s okay to be unhappy with the situation as it stands right now. It will create grit, but getting there, the journey, is where the growth and healing are. For me, I have my yoga mat, my two dogs, my AA program, good emotional health support, and the unwavering love and support of my family. They help me when I am down, and I hope I can help them when they’re down.

But that will mean I have to put my healing first. And sometimes life sucks, and it’s hard to put me first. I get depressed. I cry. I miss my friends, and my social life. I miss my nephews. I get mad at my husband for little reasons. But I believe that ultimately 2021 will be better. It won’t be easy, and we’ll all roll in some muck. But we will have true grit.

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