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Life is changing from one day to the next, and uncertainty is the only thing we can be certain of right now. We’ve been told to expect a ‘new normal’ rather than a return to our old lives. Unless you're lucky enough to be living in a COVID-free corner of the world, you're likely to be living under some kind of restrictions. So with this in mind, we turn to the impact of pandemic stress, isolation and loneliness on people’s mental health. Let's look at the things you can control to support your emotional well-being and that of the people you love, through this time and beyond.
As a company rooted in scientific research, we welcome the renewed national interest in and focus on science. So, what is ‘the science’ telling us about the impact of the coronavirus on our mental health? Well, that it’s real and felt, and varies according to circumstance – the virus has not affected us all equally and this extends to our emotional wellbeing.
How we are impacted will depend on our situation. Our home environment and access to green space, the relationship we have with the people we live with and are close to, our health and their health, as well as our financial position, are all factors. Inevitably, any lived experience of mental ill-health has also shown to be a factor in how we adapt to the current situation.
Two surveys were carried out at the beginning of the pandemic last year– one on the general population and the other on those with pre-existing mental health conditions1. Many of the concerns reported in both surveys were anxiety-related – some generalised, others associated with issues such as ‘work, money, getting food, fear of the virus, loss, and keeping in touch.’ Unsurprisingly, isolation also featured highly in both sets of responses. Many of the regulations put in place to keep us safe – social & physical distancing, and stay-at-home orders – can also cause and exacerbate depression and anxiety, conditions that thrive on loneliness and a lack of social interaction. Interestingly, the ‘prospect of becoming physically unwell with COVID-19 ranked lower than these issues related to the social and psychological response to the pandemic2’.
Both surveys also investigated what the respondents felt were aiding their mental health and wellbeing at that time. Responses fitted broadly into six categories: staying connected, keeping busy, physical activity, staying calm, managing information (media) intake and maintaining routine. These speak to many of the tips outlined in our recent self-care blog.
Aside from our mental health, our personalities and personal response to the crisis, as well as our age, will also shape our experience, sometimes with surprising outcomes.
Understandably, the research tells us that those with lived experience of mental ill-health are worried about these conditions being made worse by the crisis3. Sadly for some this will have been the case, but there is anecdotal data emerging that says for others, their mental health has improved during this time. The survey data also shows that the wellbeing of the general population actually increased during the month of April 20204. It’s plausible that those familiar with crisis have strategies to hand and are practised at responding.
If your home environment is safe, then a reduction in social pressure and more time to rest mean that for those with social anxiety this could be a period of respite from the overstimulation often associated with modern life. There remains a question mark, of course, over what happens when restrictions are eased, but it makes sense that for some, this time has felt somewhat freeing.
The connection between the gut and the brain, sometimes referred to as the gut-brain axis (the gut-brain axis is explored in greater detail on our Learning Lab), has implications for our mental health. It is increasingly accepted that the health of our microbiome affects our mood. With this in mind, it is worth paying attention to our gut health through this crisis, when for most of us levels of stress are likely to be higher. As the microbiome is our area of expertise, we wanted to share a few pointers to help you keep yours in good shape.
Tops tips for balancing the microbiome:
Speaking of taking rest, we wanted to touch briefly on the importance of sleep given ‘the association between sleep disturbance and mental health5’. Changes in sleeping patterns and lifestyle greatly influence our mental health and stress response6. At this stage there are a lot of people suffering from lockdown fatigue, but what impact is the lockdown having on our sleep?
Interestingly, many people have reported more vivid dreams, as well as more adverse effects including difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. The BBC reported that the hashtag ‘can’t sleep’ has been trending online and a study undertaken by the Institute for Employment Studies found that very nearly two thirds of respondents reported a loss of sleep due to worry7.
‘Sleep hygiene’ has become a bit of a buzz-phrase but put simply it just means the steps we can take at home to improve the quality of our sleep.
Whilst we know older people are more vulnerable to the disease, when we think about coronavirus’s impact on emotional wellbeing, our minds often turn to children and young people, with good reason. ChildLine, a child counselling service, experienced a significant rise in the number of calls to its helpline in response to the pandemic. The disruption to their lives is huge, especially those due to sit their GCSE and A Levels. This isn’t how they expected to spend the last few weeks and months of their time at school or university – stuck at home, away from their friends, and cut off from external sources of support. A study by the University of Sheffield and Ulster University has been launched to investigate the mental health impacts of coronavirus on young people, including why it might be harder for 13-24 year olds to adhere to social distancing8.
Underlining the scale of the issue, the NSPCC has dedicated an entire section of their website providing advice and support for parents and carers. It’s not easy but if your child is struggling with their mental health there are things you can do to help.
If you do have caring responsibilities, it’s additionally important to recognise that you can’t pour from an empty cup. But regardless of your situation, taking care of yourself should be treated as a priority during this time. This will mean different things to different people, but our recent self-care blog is a great place to start if you are looking for ideas or want to better understand what good self-care looks like.
And finally, this Good News Feed from HuffPost only posts good news, making it an enjoyable and uplifting read! Enjoy and stay safe everyone.
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If you or someone you love is suffering with mental ill-health during this period there are organisations who can help. The NHS Every Mind Matters site provides expert advice and practical tips, including a page for those in need of urgent support.
Sadly, there are a lot of families grieving for loved ones right now. If that’s you or someone you know, Cruse offers support when someone dies.
Incidents of domestic violence and abuse have sadly also risen during this period. If you are suffering you can contact the 24-hr National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
And if you are worried about a child or young person you can take advice from the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000.