There’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has had an extreme impact on the public’s mental health. A recent survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that the number of adults in Britain with depression has doubled since March, while doctors at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN) are even looking into how it may affect the brain long-term.
For some, it's the unknown that triggers a response.
“At the beginning of lockdown I think it's fair to say that anxiety was widespread, even amongst people who are generally pretty calm and not affected by mental health issues," Hilda Burke, Psychotherapist and spokesperson for UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), tells Cosmopolitan. According to ONS research Between 20 and 30 March 2020 almost half (49.6%) of people reported high anxiety, and average anxiety scores were 5.2 out of 10, a marked increase from 3.0 in the last quarter of 2019.
But those who have suffered with COVID might be experiencing different effects - from an increase in fatigue and breathlessness, to headaches and even nightmares.
“Among those that have had COVID, again there are a wide range of reactions," explains Hilda. "Some feel relieved to have had it and that they have some level of immunity towards it. Others are less confident in being immune and are worried about catching it again.”
Of course, the personal effects of something we still know relatively little about are complex and individual. So is it any wonder we're facing a mental health crisis? We spoke with three women who felt a mental as well as physical effect of coronavirus.
“Coronavirus impacted my anxiety, (including a type of OCD), and heightened some of the symptoms.
“There was a lot of confusion since, due to my asthma, I belonged to the vulnerable groups. Once I called the NHS to report the symptoms, they said it was nothing, and the uncertainty made me feel a lot more helpless. I lost my sense of smell and I felt overwhelmed with everything.
“I think the stress of COVID was the tipping point. I had a lot of nightmares during that period as well, relating to feeling locked in a house and not being able to escape since I couldn't go home, in Cyprus to be with my family. I only found out I had coronavirus when I did the antibodies test in Cyprus.
“Thankfully I had my therapist - who I only started seeing a few weeks before I caught COVID, since my mental health was already not at its best. Journaling, exercising, staying connected helped a lot... and being creative.”
“I have suffered with health anxiety for many years - my health and my family health and wellbeing had always been my greatest concern. So when COVID-19 came around it was an instant concern.
“When I fell ill at the beginning of lockdown whilst pregnant, I was overwhelmed with negative thoughts. I had given myself a death sentence even though my symptoms were mild.
“I got over the illness, but that’s when my anxiety was at its worst - I became extremely obsessive. Nothing was coming into my house without being cleaned and sterilised... including my husband who I'd spray down with Dettol once he came home from food shopping! If any of us coughed, sneezed, etc I found myself having a panic attack (which isn't great when we all have seasonal allergies).
“Now, months on, it has taken a long time to get back to some sort of normality. I have good and bad days, but I gave birth to a baby girl last month and my family keeps me busy.”
"When I got COVID in mid-March I was already sick. I was going through a hard time with my two long standing conditions (anxiety and depression) and had just been signed off by the doctor for two weeks.
"COVID floored me for five months. I was never in hospital and have had minimum contact with my doctors – except an antibodies test I paid for privately in May. I was scared of going to hospital, but in the five months that followed I couldn’t live my normal life; I was exhausted, had breathing problems, racing heart, flu symptoms, at one point upset stomach, a migraine that lasted a week and general malaise. I had to go to bed – sometimes for up to four days - because of minor things like standing too close to barbecue smoke, or almost-jogging for under one minute down a hill.
"I’ve been managing anxiety and depression for the past 5 years but I’d never, properly, totally stopped before - this time I really rested. Something about COVID made me take my health more seriously than I ever was able to before.
"I’d say I’m better now. Better, but not best. I still can't run. I still get really tired and I still avoid all the ‘triggers’ like smoke/smog, stress, inflammatory foods, cardiovascular exertion. Basically, anything than can make my body take up ‘fight’ mode – whether physiological or phycological – is bad.
"Perhaps the biggest changes is that I moved out of London, to rural Oxfordshire, in June. While the stress of the move was a setback, my life is different now – I work at home, I’m much more productive and I walk in the fields every day. I’m so grateful for my partner Cathy and Barney the Cavapoo for their love and support. I don’t know what I’d have done without them."
How to deal with long-lasting mental health effects after COVID
If you're still feeling the non-physical effects of coronavirus, you're certainly not alone. "I think COVID is still affecting people mentally because so much is unknown," Hilda explains.
"As humans we like certainty, we like to feel we're in control and we like to plan and know what's going to happen in the future. This is, of course, an illusion as we are not fully in control of what's going to happen to us - but for many people COVID is providing a stark wake up call in terms of shattering this illusion."
Hilda believes the stress may have brought existing feelings to the surface - and it's not something you should have to go through alone. It's important to seek help, and that could mean chatting to a therapist, or booking an appointment with your GP who can talk you through options for mental health treatment.
It can also be reassuring to avoid looking too far into the future, and take comfort in small wins each day.
"A friend of mine has a Buddhist teacher who once told him: 'relax, nothing is under control.'" Hilda explains. "If we can let go of some of our expectations around how we feel our life or things generally 'should be', it can really help us to tolerate all the changes that are happening in our world as a result of COVID."
For more information on coronavirus, or to book an appointment with your GP, visit the NHS website.
*Names have been changed.
The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. While we are attempting to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, so it's possible that some information and recommendations may have changed since publishing. For any concerns and latest advice, visit the World Health Organisation. If you're in the UK, the National Health Service can also provide useful information and support, while US users can contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
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