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Michelle Obama has talked about low-grade depression, but what exactly is it?

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Hollie Richardson
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Low-grade depression.

What is low-grade depression? After Michelle Obama opened up about experiencing it over lockdown, many people who related to her symptoms want to find out more. Here, Stylist speaks to mental health experts to get some answers. 

Lockdown has undoubtedly affected many people’s mental health during the pandemic. 

Along with recurring anxieties over devastating news updates, there is also the continuing worry over lockdown easing, the fear over returning to ‘normal’ and the struggle to get a good night’s sleep.

A sense of guilt has also been commonly associated with these feelings: is it OK to feel optimistic when so much tragedy has happened? Is simply staying indoors really the most helpful thing we can do to save lives?

Yep, this continues to be an emotional rollercoaster that we’re all navigating. And nobody is immune; not even Michelle Obama. 

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Speaking on her new podcast, Obama revealed the “low-grade depression” she’s experienced during lockdown.

“I’m waking up in the middle of the night because I’m worrying about something or there’s a heaviness,” she said, admitting that, despite trying to stick to a routine and “get a workout in” on a daily basis, there have been times when she’s felt “too low” to do so.

“I’ve gone through those emotional highs and lows that I think everybody feels, where you just don’t feel yourself,” she explained. “And sometimes there has been a week or so where I’ve had to surrender to that and not be so hard on myself.”

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Adding that these periods of low mood are “unusual” for her, Obama acknowledged that this change was “a direct result of being out of body, out of mind”.

“These are not fulfilling times spiritually,” she continued. “I know that 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.”

A woman looking out her window
Michelle Obama has talked about "low-grade anxiety".

What is low-grade depression?

Obama’s words are of course very relatable to a lot of us. But what exactly is she describing? 

According to psychotherapist Michelle Scott from The Recovery Centre, the former First Lady of the United States is using the term to best describe how she is feeling rather than it being an actual diagnosis. In a therapy setting, it might be called Situational Depression or Reactive Depression. 

“As Michelle described, we need to allow ourselves to feel what we are feeling without judgement. It is really helpful that she is sharing this and describing her symptoms of heaviness of mood, worry, trouble sleeping and changeable mood – all of which are a very natural reaction to the situation she is living through,” explains Scott.

“Other symptoms can be: feeling numb, difficulty enjoying normal activities, anxiety and agitation, difficultly thinking clearly, physical symptoms such as headaches, changes in appetite and fatigue and behaviour changes such as isolating or the urge to use substances or food.

“This type of depression can be triggered by any stressful event or situation which feels overwhelming to our ability to process or cope. It will usually pass as the situation eases and we are able to return to our normal life but it can be very distressing and can become more chronic if the situation is sustained or if we are not able to have the support we need to get through the difficulty.”

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How to treat low-grade depression

Dr Elena Touroni from My Online Therapy agrees that Obama is referring to a form of “mild depression” that some people might not properly recognise as being a problem at first.

But if you do feel the symptoms described, Touroni has some straightforward advice: “Depression tends to be accompanied – and maintained – by a lot of negative self-talk. So first off, be kind to yourself. We’ve all navigated big changes this year so it’s only natural that this might also have a psychological impact. 

“If you think you could be suffering from depression, I would encourage you to seek therapy as soon as possible. A therapist can help you unravel why you’re feeling like this. They’ll work with you to create more effective, and balanced ways of thinking and help you make the necessary lifestyle changes to build a healthier frame of mind.”

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For more information on anxiety and depression, including how to cope and when to seek professional help, you can visit the NHS website or the Mind website.    

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…