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COVID-19 has changed the way we live in so many ways, with many governments around the world implementing restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus.
Initial research has indicated that this has had a significant and negative impact on our nation’s mental health. For example, an IFS analysis of the Understanding Society study reported that mental health has worsened by around 8.1% on average. They also note that this has not affected groups equally, with those already at risk of mental health issues being hit the hardest.
In this guide, we will look at some of the existing research surrounding the topic as well as advice offered by the experts. We will discuss some of the key issues that are affecting us, and highlight some of the most popular evidence-based methods for how we can try to protect and promote a positive state of mental health during the lockdown.
What do we mean by mental health?
When we talk about our mental health, we are referring to our emotional and psychological health and wellbeing. The World Health Organisation reported that it is more than simply the ‘absence of mental disorders’ but something that we all possess.
The WHO also highlight how various social and biological factors can impact on our state of mental health. This is particularly important, as the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown is believed to be potentially exacerbating pre-existing inequalities.
Why is mental health important during lockdown?
During an infectious disease outbreak, we are likely to be experiencing and feeling things that we have not before. It is an unprecedented situation, but you may notice that you experience:
- Increased anxiety.
- Increased feelings of stress.
- Worries about contracting the virus.
- Excessively checking for symptoms.
- Increased irritability.
- Issues with sleeping.
- Feeling helpless/lack of control.
On average, one in four people in the UK will experience some form of mental health issues at some point in their lives. However, we are currently living in a time when our mental health is likely to be further affected, with over a third of British adults reporting that the pandemic has affected their wellbeing. This has been reflected across the research, with mental health issues often on the rise following disasters, including previous viral outbreaks.
Last year, a study by Rethink Mental Illness found that over three-quarters of people with pre-existing mental health conditions reported that their mental health got worse due to the pandemic.
Furthermore, it is also likely to affect many people who have not experienced mental health issues in the past. This is further impacted upon as we are no longer able to use the coping mechanisms that we have already developed, such as seeing friends and family or spending time outdoors. Data has also indicated that we have been less likely to reach out and ask for support for our mental health during this time. This is particularly concerning, as many people are waiting until they reach crisis point before seeking support.
Health and Anxiety
Anxiety is a normal reaction to a stressful or worrying situation. However, when an individual feels disproportionate levels of anxiety, they may have some type of generalised anxiety disorder. During a virus outbreak, it is quite common to experience anxiety, particularly with regard to cleanliness and hygiene and fear over contracting the virus. This can be made worse if you are in one of the groups that are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID.
In the UK, a report by the Office of National Statistics stated that people who often felt lonely are five times more likely to report high anxiety compared with those who never feel lonely. One in five people who felt that they had high anxiety said that their work had been affected. Another marked change has been in the older adults group. Those over the age of 65 were previously the least likely group to report anxiety, but they have had the highest levels during the lockdown, particularly if shielding.
Social Isolation and Loneliness
With some new evidence to suggest that one in three people who contract coronavirus are asymptomatic, social distancing is the one thing that we can all do to help reduce the pressure on the NHS and minimise the spread.
However, it is reported that both loneliness and social isolation can have a significant impact on our overall physical and mental health and wellbeing. There is even evidence to suggest that social isolation can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes. Ultimately, this is a subjective experience but more adults reported that they feel lonely during the lockdown, and it can particularly affect those who live alone.
Increased Stress in Relationships during Lockdown
Some surveys have suggested that the lockdown has had a positive impact on some couples, with a survey commissioned by the British Psychological Society suggesting that 79% of those in a relationship felt that it has allowed them to reconnect with their partners and spend quality time with their families.
Although for some people reading this, isolation for a short period of time sounds perfect, being in such close proximity with our loved ones and the added psychological pressure of the pandemic can put relationships under strain. Many parents are homeschooling as well as working from home, couples have never spent so much time together, and it can be difficult to communicate with people outside of our bubble.
Such factors may also make any existing issues worse or could exacerbate them further. Whilst the true prevalence cannot be known, research has indicated that the lockdown has resulted in an increased risk of abuse, with reports that calls to the national domestic helpline Refuge are 49% higher than usual.
Financial Pressures and Uncertainty
For many people, furlough, potentially losing their employment or business, and relying on benefits has had a huge impact on their mental health.
A report by the Mental Health Foundation found over a third of people were worried about losing their job, with a quarter stating that they were not coping well with the stress of the pandemic. Furthermore, research commissioned by Aviva suggested that more than half of adults aged 45-54 were more worried about their financial situation now than before the pandemic. 1 in 5 stated that they were having difficulties sleeping, 1 in 6 adult children had become more financially dependent on their parents, and almost a third of participants believed that their current financial situation is harming their mental health.
Protecting your Mental Health
The amount of news people access will depend on the individual, but keeping a check on it can help. Whilst social media can be a great way to stay in touch with our friends and family, it can be a bit of an unreliable source of information. Plus, rumour and speculation can make anxiety worse. As a result, it is important that we get our news from sources we trust. Avoid information overload whenever possible and if you are feeling overwhelmed, step away from media.
During the first lockdown, so many of us organised pub quizzes, online chats, and games. However, as time goes on enthusiasm has waned.
Keep up communication with:
- Video calls
- Social media.
- Phone calls.
- Text messages.
- Traditional letters.
- Instant messages.
It always helps to talk about the things that worry us and reaching out can be an important first step in managing your mental health. Whether it is to a family member or friend or to a national helpline, there is always someone available to listen.
Physical Health and Wellbeing
During lockdown, ensuring that your wider health needs are met is essential. Physical and mental health are interrelated, with regular exercise and a good diet often being correlated with increased serotonin and dopamine levels.
Some top tips for looking after your physical self are:
- Move your body: Keeping active can have a wide array of physical and psychological benefits, and can even improve your concentration levels.
- Get outside: Sometimes, it can be really difficult to go out in the wild after you have spent long periods of time indoors, and especially if you have anxiety. However, a good dose of vitamin D, sunshine and fresh air can have a huge benefit to our mental health.
- Healthy diet: We are all aware of the importance of our diet, and making sure we get our five a day. However, sometimes that is much easier said than done. Even so, cutting down sugar and alcohol can have an array of benefits.
- Regular sleep: Trying to maintain our sleep pattern can also have a positive impact on our overall mental health. Plus, getting plenty of sleep can also boost your immune system.
Evidence has suggested that finding meaning and purpose in our daily activities is associated with better brain health due to the generation of new cells and neural pathways. Whether it is getting organised, spring cleaning or working on you, having something to work towards can help.
You could also:
- Learn a new skill: Lifelong learning is associated with better brain health, so you could take this time to develop a skill. From learning a language to discovering how to make bread, knitting, crocheting, painting or anything else, embrace the opportunity.
- Set SMART targets: SMART targets are those which are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. It can be an effective way to manage your time by providing clarity and focus.
- Professional development: This is similar to learning something new, but you could also consider your career path and the next steps you need to take in order to achieve your goals during lockdown.
Maintaining a routine is one of the biggest challenges when working from home, and this can affect the whole family. Research has suggested that the pandemic is likely to have long-term consequences on children and adolescents, particularly with regard to the lack of school, fear and anxiety.
Work together with your household bubble to create a lockdown-specific routine and try to stick to it. There will be a need for some flexibility, but even just waking up, eating and going to sleep at around the same time each day can make an impact.
Self-Care and Mindfulness
Many advocates of the self-care movement frequently refer to the procedure surrounding oxygen masks on planes. During the safety demonstration, we are told that we should put on our own masks before helping others. This suggests that in order to be there to help others, we need to ensure that our own needs are being met.
Whether it is reading, pampering yourself, exercise or anything else, many of us have our own preferred self-care methods.
However, you could combine this with mindfulness techniques such as:
- Meditation: Give your brain a break and meditate for ten minutes a day. If you are struggling, there are lots of videos and apps online.
- Yoga: You could also consider taking up a relaxation practice such as yoga or palates. Even just doing the breathing exercises can be calming.
- Grounding: Grounding yourself in the present can help to halt a negative spiral. Check out grounding exercise online to learn more.
- Journaling: Whether it is keeping a track of your daily life, collecting doodles, or writing a full-blown diary, actively journaling each day can assist some people in gaining clarity and being able to reflect.
Accessing Treatment and Support
Good mental health is ultimately a national asset, and it is important to prioritise it as much as we are able. We are living in an unprecedented time, and things are not going to be as they were before just yet. However, it remains essential that we recognise the importance of prioritising out mental health. If you have urgent mental health needs, contact 111 or your local Crisis team or urgent mental health helpline. You can also find a range of helplines on the NHS website.