From the COVID-19 pandemic to political divisions, it’s easy to feel fearful or uncertain about the state of the world—even if you’re former first lady Michelle Obama.
“Fear can help you,” Obama told Health in a new interview. “It's an important emotion, but it can keep you stuck.”
Obama has previously been candid about her mental health—in 2020, she opened up about experiencing “low-grade depression” during an episode of her eponymous podcast.
“These are not […] fulfilling times, spiritually,” she said during the episode. “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 [the former Trump administration], watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting.”
Now, ahead of the release of her new book, The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, Obama spoke exclusively with Health about fear and self doubt—and how caring for not only herself but also her community has helped move her through challenging times.
Dealing With Feelings of Cynicism and Hopelessness
In her new book, Obama touched again on how a “low-grade form” of depression cropped up in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven largely by an overwhelming sense of cynicism and hopelessness about the state of the world.
Compounding this, she added, was the fact that former President Donald Trump’s election seemed like a rebuke of the work that she and husband former President Barack Obama had put in over the previous eight years.
“It had not been enough. We ourselves were not enough. The problems were too big. The holes were too giant, impossible to fill,” Obama wrote in her book.
Though low-grade depression is not a clinical diagnosis, Obama discussed in her podcast that she felt a “weight” on her, and sometimes felt too “low” to even exercise or engage in self-care.
These symptoms are similar to those of depression, which can include:
- Persistent empty mood
- Feeling hopeless
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Feeling irritable
- Losing interest in pleasurable activities and hobbies
Obama wasn't alone in managing poor mental health during that time period. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that during the first year of the pandemic, anxiety and depression prevalence rose by 25% worldwide. On top of that, following the death of George Floyd, nearly half of Black Americans said they felt angry and sad, and one review estimated 900,000 would have screened positive for depression in the week after Floyd’s death.
Coping with the compounding stressors of 2020 has been difficult, and many are still struggling to heal. For some, that may mean seeking help from a therapist—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the percentage of adults who sought therapy increased by nearly 2.5% between 2019 and 2021.
For Obama, facing this skepticism and fear about the world and all of its many issues meant embracing community, and most importantly differences.
“I try to keep myself open to people to not get comfortable in my sameness,” Obama told Health. “Part of what makes us afraid in this society and these times is, ‘I don't know you, and if you don't look like me, you didn't grow up like me, you don't believe in the same political views, then I am afraid of you because you're different.’ I try to value differentness as a strength.”
Using Community to Combat Fear and Uncertainty
Though Obama has relied on community to help her “stay open and feel less afraid in a world that seems to be getting smaller and smaller,” she also admits that it takes practice to embrace others’ differences and get to a place where you feel comfortable relying on and building community with other people.
“You have to search it out,” Obama said, regarding building a community of your own and not waiting for one to come to you. “I think the same thing is true for anyone out at any stage of their life feeling othered and alone and different, is to find your kitchen table,” she added.
Obama speaks more about finding your own “kitchen table” in her book. It’s the idea that, rather than internalizing your self-doubts, anxieties, and feelings that nothing can get done, you can share those feelings with other similar-minded people, and embrace them as positive aspects.
“It’s worth working to find people with whom you can remove your armor and shed your worries,” Obama writes in her book. “You can show your unbridled anger, your fear of injustices and slights. Because you can’t hold it all in. You can’t process the challenges of being different all on your own. It’s just too big, too painful, to keep inside.”
In addition to her own close friendships, Obama also talks about building community with neighbors, the people she meets on book tours, or the children she’ll encounter while visiting schools while traveling.
Of course, it’s more complicated for Obama to connect with community members as a public figure who is “bubble wrapped”—it means she has to “be more intentional about it in the work” that she does.
But Obama also reminds readers that, in seeking help from your community, you have to take care of yourself too.
“We’re going to be at our best when we’re taking care of ourselves—that spans everything from getting enough sleep and exercise to talking with someone who can help you sort through life… maybe a partner, a friend, or a therapist,” Obama said. “If we’re doing those things, we’re going to be able to see a little more clearly, and feel what others are going through a little more deeply.”
Because anxieties big and small probably won’t be going away anytime soon, Obama’s combination of caring for ourselves and the community around us could be one possible antidote to the fear, hopelessness, and self-doubt that we all feel sometimes. Community and self-care “go hand in hand,” she said.
“Tapping into something larger than yourself—volunteering at the homeless shelter, making some phone calls for a political candidate, going to the church picnic, even picking up trash on the sidewalk,” Obama said, “those things can be so good to get us out of our own heads.”