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UK stress levels are higher now than at the beginning of the pandemic, study finds


10th Jan 2021 Wellbeing

UK stress levels are higher now than at the beginning of the pandemic, study finds

As the holiday season and the second lockdown overlap, one study finds that UK adults are in poorer mental health compared to the beginning of the pandemic. 


Around this time of year, it’s common for holiday cheer to be eclipsed by feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression. However, this year is like no other and has so far created unprecedented mental health challenges. According to a new study, UK adults are experiencing more distress than in spring, as symptoms such as loneliness, stress, and inability to cope take centre stage. The study, conducted by De Montfort University Leicester and the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation, started in March 2020 and has continually surveyed UK adults regarding their mental health and wellbeing. The latest stage of the research took place at the end of November and included over 4,400 adults. Despite taking place after the vaccine announcement, the study showed that 25% of respondents felt increasingly lonely, compared to 10% in March. 


UK adults are struggling with stress, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts. 

When the first lockdown measures were introduced in the UK, mental health experts warned that their impact would be long-term, and this study confirmed their theory. And if things didn’t look too bleak in the first months, when some people even welcomed the idea of spending more time at home, rekindling the connections with their spouses and kids, and even discovering new hobbies, now months of pressure have piled up. The “bread baking stage of the pandemic” seems to be far behind us and, despite a slight improvement during the summer months, Brits are struggling to maintain their emotional wellbeing. 


According to the study, the percentage of people who are coping well with pandemic-related stress has dropped from 73% to 62%. Other findings include: 


  • 18% of adults reported feeling hopeless about the future. 
  • The prevalence of suicidal thoughts has increased from 8% to 13%. 
  • The number of people who had experienced anxiety over the past two weeks has dropped from 62% to 45%, and so has the concern for financial matters.  


So, while people are experiencing less anxiety and no longer fear as much that the pandemic will affect their finances, the long-term effects of isolation are starting to be felt. This trend also seems to be exacerbated by the cold winter months, which make people more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. 


According to study co-author Tine Van Bortel from De Montfort University Leicester, loneliness and distress are getting worse because the pandemic has taken away a support system that helped most adults cope with stress: staying connected with family and friends, social gatherings, and vacations. And while the UK Government has taken measures to address the mental health impact of the pandemic, the authors of the study point out that we need a sustainable, long-term approach to manage all these challenges. According to them, the ideal solution would be to tackle the social and economic challenges that affect mental health, such as unemployment, poverty, and social isolation in the elderly. However, such measures need time to be implemented, and people still have to address mental health individually. 


What can you do to preserve your mental wellbeing during the holidays?

Socially distanced holidays can be difficult to manage. Usually, this time of year is for large family gatherings, going out with friends, and taking long-awaited vacations, but in 2020, all of these will have to wait. That can lead to stress, loneliness, and family tensions, which, combined with the existing risks of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), takes a significant toll on mental health. If you have been feeling sad, lonely, overwhelmed, or irritable lately, these positive strategies can help you cope with stress and rebalance your mental health. 


Seek online therapy 

A professional therapist is the most qualified person to guide you through your feelings and create positive coping strategies during these mentally challenging times. Platforms such as UK Therapy Guide can help you find an online therapist so that you can have sessions safely, in the comfort of your home. If you’ve never had therapy before, online sessions can be an excellent introduction, since you’ll be in a familiar setting. 


Look after your body. 

Our minds and bodies are interconnected. When we neglect one, the other suffers too. During the pandemic, you’ll be spending more time at home, and that could lead to a less active lifestyle, unhealthy eating patterns, and low sleep quality. In turn, that affects your mental health, and the circle goes on and on. The first step to good mental health starts with a healthier lifestyle, so try to get at least 30 minutes of physical exercise every day to keep your energy levels up and lift your mood. Even if gyms are closed, you can still work out at home by doing Pilates, indoor cycling, and rope skipping. Even non-traditional workouts, such as cleaning the house and gardening have similar results, and the World Health Organization has officially recommended them as forms of beneficial physical activities. 


Find time for yourself. 

Even with a pandemic going on, the holidays can still be hectic and affect your mental health. Between (virtual) holiday shopping and meeting deadlines at work, find at least one hour every day for yourself when you can meditate, relax, and practice your hobbies. This will give you an opportunity to unwind and reduce stress. 

Learn to say no 

To reduce the spread of the coronavirus, authorities recommend socially distanced holidays and celebrating only with the people that live in the same household. That can create a lot of tension, especially from relatives whom you haven’t seen all year, and make you say yes to family plans that you’re not comfortable with. This holiday season, staying safe and following guidelines is more important than any tradition, so if loved ones want to meet up, suggest a virtual conference instead. Social distancing doesn’t have to imply emotional distancing, and there are many ways to show you care for your loved ones without being in the same room. 

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