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Living in lockdown: how can it have an impact on our mental health?

The UK is now living in lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This means only being in close contact with the people you live with, and only leaving the house when absolutely necessary. It has been suggested that this form social isolation is likely to affect people’s mental health for various reasons. An online survey conducted by The Boar Features found that 67% of its participants, who are Warwick students, say they feel they have experienced a decline in their mental health since the lockdown began.

Lockdown measures have completely changed life in the UK as we knew it before. Most of us have had to accept that we won’t see our friends, or some members of our families for the foreseeable future. This is more so the case for international students who are unable to return home due to travel restrictions, and are potentially having to face the lockdown alone. Activities that do permit us to leave the house, like shopping or picking up prescriptions, can be isolating with only one person allowed to shop at a time and minimal contact with other people. Lockdown can therefore be incredibly lonely, especially for those who already suffer from mental health issues. One student at Warwick told The Boar Features: “everyone now has more time to sit in their own company and be with their thoughts and that can be a really dangerous thing for someone with mental health struggles.”

Lockdown can be incredibly lonely for those who already suffer from mental health issues.

Indeed, many people are already experiencing the negative effects of the country being on lockdown. The crisis helpline SHOUT have found an increase in messages mentioning coronavirus- in the time of writing, 30% of conversations have been about the virus in the past week. It’s not only people who struggle with their mental health that have been feeling the consequences of the lockdown. Many people have felt a general decline in their mental wellbeing. Among Warwick students surveyed who didn’t have a preexisting mental illness, 65% said they had experienced low mood and/or increased anxiety since the lockdown began.

“Under normal circumstances my mental health is perfectly fine and I only tend to worry about small things,” another student who took part in the survey explained. “But… not knowing what will happen and when things will go back to normal is bringing that underlying anxiety to a prominent place in my life.”

Why do people struggle to cope with lockdown conditions? One reason is because humans are social creatures by nature, and have an innate need to be around other people. This is an evolutionary instinct because it was often practical for humans to group together in order to survive. It’s estimated that this shift from living as individuals into social units happened 52 million years ago. Humans have lived in groups for so long, social scientist Nicholas Christakis says lockdown conditions are forcing us to “suppress our… human and evolutionarily hard-wired impulses for connection”. Denying ourselves contact with others, physical and social, is denying our innate instincts even if it is for our own safety.

Additionally, socialising buffers many of the negative effects of stress. According to a research psychologist at Brigham Young University, chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by 29%. Therefore, being around other people can help stress levels for many individuals and help them deal with their anxieties. While in lockdown, people can seek comfort from the people they’re isolating with, which is beneficial for some. But for the estimated 1.6 million women in England and Wales who experience domestic abuse, for example, this isn’t good enough and could lead to increased anxiety. Indeed, many people have been cut off from their support networks during lockdown, which is likely to cause mental health to deteriorate.

Being around other people can help stress levels for many individuals and help them deal with their anxieties.

A Warwick student commented that “it’s… tough when you’re stuck indoors with the same people… if they don’t understand your mental health situation, don’t know about it or simply aren’t those you’d usually talk to about it. It can make you feel more alone than you already were in isolation.”

Indeed, while the average person might struggle with their wellbeing in lockdown, people with mental illnesses are more vulnerable to the effects. The online survey found that 80% of those who already had a diagnosed mental illness had experienced low mood and anxiety since lockdown began.

For some people, this could be because they are surrounded by things that are potentially triggering or because they use unhealthy coping mechanisms to buffer stress. A person with an eating disorder will now find themselves trapped with the food in their kitchen and with nothing to think about except the next meal. Or somebody may find that their addiction provides an escape from the stress of the coronavirus situation. It’s easy to see how lockdown may fuel and even reinforce unhealthy behaviours- for example, somebody who wonders if there’s any point getting out of bed in the morning, may feel their hypothesis has been proven correct now that the world has slowed to a halt.

A major side effect of lockdown is that many people can’t utilise their usual coping mechanisms. Spending time with friends or significant others, a change of scenery, or exercising are all recommended ways of improving your mental wellbeing. Many people will now find themselves separated from those they rely on and lacking the techniques they usually use to cope. According to one participant, who said that spending time with her boyfriend was incredibly beneficial to her mental health: “people have certain ‘fixes’ for mental health which work for them, and if those happen to require interaction or travel then you’re stuck”.

A major side effect of lockdown is that many people can’t utilise their usual coping mechanisms.

However, not everybody has had the same experience during lockdown. Some people, although it has only been a small amount, have reportedly seen their mental health improve since the lockdown. Psychologist Elizabeth Cohen, who has practiced for 15 years, estimates that 20% of her clients have actually seen their symptoms alleviate in recent weeks. She says this is due to a lot of anxiety being due to anticipation about the unknown and since “the terrible thing happened”, some people aren’t experiencing their usual uncertainty.

And that isn’t the only reason some people’s mental health has improved. The barriers that cause some people problems in every day life have temporarily been removed. For example, students who may have previously experienced stomach-wrenching anxiety about attending lectures or seminars no longer have to dread going to them. Many sources of anxiety have disappeared, for now at least, which may explain the 20% of Warwick students with a mental illness who feel the lockdown hasn’t worsened their health.

Unfortunately, there’s no one answer to the effects of living in lockdown on mental health. Everyone has a unique experience of mental health and what may be a difficult situation for one person could be a relief for somebody else. But the NHS has issued guidelines on what people can do if they’re struggling with their mental health right now: connect with others, learn something new, keep active, give to other people, and be mindful.

Everyone has a unique experience of mental health and what may be a difficult situation for one person could be a relief for somebody else.

Perhaps the most important thing, though, is to stay connected with others and to make sure that they have somebody to lean on. A student at Warwick advised: “I do think people need to remember to check on their friends and family and colleagues, just in case someone is struggling and could use some support. It’s important now more than ever”.

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