Why the new lockdown rules could support our mental health

Date: 20/05/2020 Written by: Jo 7 minutes to read.
Looking after our mental wellbeing

This week marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week (18th – 24th May), a topic that is inevitably a huge talking point in the current situation in lockdown. Many experts are now looking at how the effects of living under lockdown may evolve into longer-term issues, as a result of the prolonged restriction in place to support the control of coronavirus. But how can we start to affect the building issue of mental health now, to lessen the impact and mitigate the potential problems faced following the long period of restricted living?

Lockdown measures are affecting EVERYONE

With a constant stream of updates regarding coronavirus, it would be impossible not to incite some worry in even the most optimistic people, and the current situation is affecting everybody in so many different ways (Read our blog: The social impact of coronavirus). In such unprecedented circumstances, there isn’t a definite right way of dealing with the changes, and some are finding it more challenging than others.

Research published by the Mental Health Foundation, indicated that nearly 1 in 4 adults in the UK had experienced feelings of loneliness as a result of the lockdown measures across the country, a number that has more than doubled since the restrictions were put in place. The most affected group were young people aged 18 – 24 years, with 44% saying they had experienced feelings of loneliness in the previous two weeks. The next highest group was 25-34-year olds, with more than one third admitting to feeling lonely. This could perhaps indicate that a lot of younger adults, including students who have moved home to isolate, may be struggling to adapt to living with their family. There may also be a high number of people between 18-34 living on their own and feeling disconnected from family and friends.

A lot of people are also struggling with the uncertainty surrounding finances, as millions of businesses and livelihoods are seeing the effect of economic shutdown across the UK. There’s a long-established connection between economic hardship and mental health, with people living in the lowest socioeconomic groups being at greater risk of suffering from poor mental health. One in five people have admitted to being worried about losing their job and one third of UK adults have spoken of their concern surrounding finances, paying bills and getting into debt.

The lockdown measures can be especially challenging for those with pre-existing mental health conditions, who may find the fear of being ‘out of control’ difficult to deal with, or find their symptoms amplified by the uncertainty of the situation. Such conditions include claustrophobia, agoraphobia, generalised anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression and panic disorders.

With everyone worrying about a range of individual circumstances, the management of our mental health is more crucial than ever.

Managing our mental health

This brings me back to my initial point – it would be impossible not be affected in some way by the changes during the pandemic. People I speak to everyday have a different concern, be that struggling to cope with isolation and loneliness, tearing their hair out from the increased demand of juggling a job with home schooling, families trying to support a dependent relative or friend from a distance – the list goes on. In a survey conducted by ONS, it was suggested that some 8.5million people were concerned about their own wellbeing, which included feelings of boredom, loneliness and stress. Measures of wellbeing were reportedly at their lowest level since the commencement of data collection in 2011 (ONS).

A major concern with the figures being reported is undoubtedly the implications to levels of mental health across the UK, the strain it may place on the current mental health provisions, and the extension of time to which mental health issues may be at an elevated level. But what can be done to help?  

Now is a time when importance must be placed on the personal management of mental health and wellbeing and this could well start with the slight lifting of measures seen within the past week. In a shift in the government guidance last week, people are now able to exercise outdoors for an unlimited amount of time, either by themselves, with members of their household or with one person from another household, as long as social distancing rules are applied.

Exercise and physical activity can be a major coping mechanism for people who are struggling with low mood or poor mental health – even a short 10-minute walk can help to boost our mood and increase energy levels. Exercise helps us to feel more content, more awake and more in control of our emotions, helping us to cope with stress and anxiety responses, due to the body increasing the production of its natural feel good hormones – good old endorphins.

So, could exercising and fitness be the answer to reducing these high levels of anxiety and strain on mental health and wellbeing? In a recent study by Sport England, 65% of adults agreed that doing regular exercise is helping them to manage their mental health during lockdown, with 62% indicating that they recognise the importance of being physical active in response to the pandemic.

This has shown in the changes to the way people are consuming exercise and are adapting or increasing their exercise habits in lockdown (for more information read our blog – How activity levels are changing under COVID-19). Now people are tuning in to live workouts performed by personal trainers, PE teachers and fitness instructors, with more than 15 million people tuning in during one week to free live PE lessons with Fitness guru, Joe Wicks.

The enforced lockdown also caused a huge upswing in purchasing exercise equipment to use at home; people buying kettlebells rose 419% at the end of March, with other equipment such as skipping ropes, yoga mats, dumb bells and bar bells seeing a huge burst in consumer demand.

Even just the introduction of an extra walk has been evident in research findings, with Sport England reporting that nearly two thirds of people have included some walking in their routine in the previous week, with over a third saying that this is more walking than they would usually have done.

These first steps to loosening restrictions could prove invaluable to promoting better mental health and wellbeing in the long term – although the changes seem small, having that vital access to exercise time coupled with being able to venture out more frequently, even just alongside household members or one additional person as permitted, can have a huge, immediate impact on mental health. It can promote a more positive outlook, as people are no longer confined to their homes for very long periods of the day. Although the appeal of exercise may not be for everyone, and there are those struggling to motivate themselves to do extra activity, having the small freedom to embark on a socially distant walk with one other person can make a huge difference. Being able to connect and interact with another person is a fundamental human need and is critical to supporting wellbeing. I personally notice the difference it can make to your day if you can see another familiar face and for those struggling to settle in a household of people or for those experiencing feelings of loneliness, extra outdoor activities with a friend could be a much-needed getaway from the stresses of home lockdown – it would be beneficial to both physical and mental wellbeing!

Final thoughts

The current climate is a very unique time in terms of observing changes in human behaviour. Observing the significant adaptations to exercise consumption and what people are doing to look after their wellbeing overall, I am looking with intrigue at what the future of staying active might look like in a post-lockdown world. Could the habits being formed now be carried forward into our regular daily routines? Or is this upsurge in physical activity a direct result of people having that additional time to exercise or from needing to get out of the house regularly?

Having a keen interest in fitness and physical activity habits and adoption, this is certainly something I will be scrutinising with great interest. But for now, it is encouraging to see the value that people are placing on physical activity to help support their mental wellbeing, and hopefully it is something that people are adopting more now to support their wellbeing for the future.

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