Stress is surging as life during Covid-19 stretches on. During the first lockdown back in April, almost three quarters of people said they were coping well with the stress of the pandemic. Flash forward to November this year and just 62% were coping.
An ongoing survey by the Mental Health Foundation, in partnership with the universities of Cambridge, Swansea, Strathclyde, Queen’s Belfast and De Montfort, reveals a longer-term trend towards deepening distress in the UK.
Key indicators among adults, including loneliness, suicidal thoughts and not coping with stress, are all worse now than at the start of the pandemic, the survey found. It echoes the responses shared with HuffPost UK’s How Are You Feeling? project, where people have told us they feel depressed, hopeless and, in some cases, suicidal.
For some, there is a feeling that can’t be shaken despite knowing they are safe and well. Reader Sophie, from Exeter, told us she feels “off”.
“I have a lovely safe home, I’m warm, there’s food in the fridge, snuggly blankets, Bake Off and beautiful walks – and for the first time in a while I’ve opportunity to enjoy them.
“But I’m glum, waves of apathy. Time feels like it’s passing and I want to live but I’m behind a glass wall. There are books to read, exercises to do, things to learn – but often I don’t want to. I’m surprised, when there are so many things to be grateful for, how blue I’m feeling.”
“Time feels like it’s passing and I want to live, but I’m behind a glass wall.”
Another reader, who wished to remain anonymous, said they felt “isolated and lonely” and had suicidal thoughts.
“Although I am married and have children and grandchildren, this pandemic has only served to underline how lonely I actually am,” they said. “Having no friends for support whilst my wife works, I find being alone especially hard, as I have complex medical and mental needs.”
The Mental Health Foundation’s latest wave of research involved 4,436 adults and was carried out between November 26-30, after the announcement of successful vaccine trials.
It found reports of having had suicidal thoughts and feelings in the past two weeks, as a result of the pandemic, had risen from 8% of those surveyed in April, to 13% in November. The extent of loneliness has more than doubled, with 10% of UK adults surveyed in March saying they were lonely, compared to 25% in November.
One thing that therapists are keen to convey is that feeling stressed and down right now is totally normal, as the pandemic is causing significant change and disruption to our lives.
“It’s important to understand that feeling bad about the current situation is normal, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, in many ways it indicates an appropriate response to the situation,” says psychotherapist Noel McDermott.
“Denial of negative feelings when dealing with real life problems is a genuine problem. View your negative symptoms as ‘critical friends’ telling you to get some help. We should feel bad when life is bad, it’s telling us to take action, to ask ourselves what we need to change and when we can’t change the situation we have to change ourselves.”
But what can people actually do to make that change, when so much is out of their control?
Acknowledge that you’ve come this far
We don’t give ourselves enough credit for getting through what has been an utter nightmare of a year, full of twists and turns, and profound changes to the way we live.
“Acknowledging that we are dealing with very real ongoing pressures is the starting place to taking the choice to be kind to ourselves,” says therapist and Counselling Directory member Grace Warwick. “To take stock of how far we have come and what that has taken out of us.
“Many people feel that they are ‘running on empty’ physically. It is important to listen to this and to make sure that we are attending to the basics, going to bed rather than staying up late with that box set, making sure that we eat regularly and staying hydrated.”
It might also help to accept the situation and that things will be different for a while yet.
Figure out your stress response
To cope with pandemic stress the first thing to do is to identify what stress looks like for you, says therapist and BACP member, Kemi Omijeh. “We all have different responses to stress. Are you more irritable? Do you find yourself eating or drinking more? Perhaps you’re sleeping more or shutting off from the world in your own way?”
By identifying your stress response, you can identify what’s likely to work for you in terms of coping with that stress, she says. For example, if you fall under the irritable category, you might want to find safe outlets to express yourself – through journaling perhaps, or talking or ranting to friend (try doing this via voice note if it’s tricky to arrange a meet-up).
Alternatively, you might want to respond through mindful breathing or relaxation methods. “Getting into the habit of responding to stress cues with relaxation and mindful breathing will improve your resilience hugely,” adds McDermott.
If you find yourself eating or drinking more, you could try looking to healthy food options instead, or channelling it positively by joining an online cookery or baking class, says Omijeh. Or you might also want to find ways to stimulate your other senses – “could you light a scented candle, take a warm bath, have a tactile object to keep your hands busy?”
And if you’re someone that responds to stress by being busy, try and schedule in moments of calm, she suggests. “Put it in your diary or to-do list if it ensures you do this.”
Reign your horizon in
In terms of coping mentally it might help to ‘bring your horizon’ in – so you’re not looking ahead to next Easter, or summer 2021, but are focusing on today, this week, the now.
“The number of unknowns increase with the length of your horizon, hence bringing it in will help with stress and anxiety,” says Warwick. “For some this may mean focusing on this week, but for others the horizon may need to be today or even the next few hours or minutes.
“Acknowledge that the most important thing to do is to take care of yourself in this moment.” Trying ask yourself the question, ‘how can I take care of myself right now?’
Say ‘no’ more
Saying ‘no’ is basically a form of self-care. In terms of creating more resilience during these tougher times, McDermott recommends cutting back on commitments and decisions where you can, and simplifying life as much as possible.
“Let go of what you don’t need to or can’t control. Learn to be in the flow of things more,” he says. “Making decisions creates more stress, cut down on stress and save that energy for the really important decisions you need to make.”
Equally, say ‘no’ to news and information overload. “There’s a plethora of news regarding the pandemic, most of which highlights the negative impact and as such can lead to stress and even a sense of vicarious trauma,” says Deone Payne-James, an integrative counsellor, psychotherapist and BACP member. “Minimising the amount of news and social media exposure can help reduce pandemic-related stress.”
Start and end the day with something positive
Book-ending your day with a hefty dose of happiness is exactly what the doctor ordered. “This can be your favourite song; a nice breakfast; cuddle time with your spouse, child or pet; going for a walk,” says Omijeh. “Incorporating a positive routine into your day, no matter how small, can do wonders for your wellbeing.”
Make time for ‘mentally healthy’ activities
Do an assessment of your day or week, suggests Payne-James, and make time and plan for activities that promote metal health and wellbeing. This might be a daily walk, some form of exercise, or meditation.
You might also want to do something that helps others such as volunteering at a local food bank, joining a community activity, doing some shopping or running errands for neighbours. “Helping others can reduce feeling of stress and helplessness, as we gain a sense of achievement by making a difference,” she adds.
Book something to look forward to
Granted, we can’t book much in at the moment in the way of holidays and trips, however you can still book some time off work – “take a self-care day, hour, 30 minutes – whatever you can fit into your schedule,” says Omijeh. “I’m a big advocate of taking mental health days from work. A lot of us will have quite a few annual leave days accumulated, take the day to do absolutely nothing or to do what you love.”
Let the light in
Natural daylight is so important for our wellbeing and sleep patterns, however in winter it can be hard to get much of it. If you can, get outside on your lunch break for a walk.
You might want to find ways of brightening up your home or bedroom to give you a mood boost, suggests Omijeh. “Add a splash of colour somewhere or put something up that makes you smile. I’d also recommend a light therapy lamp.”
Glenda Roberts, a BACP member and psychotherapist based in Suffolk, says it’s crucial to identify a support system of friends, contacts, colleagues and family who will listen and not judge you. She recommends having safe and regular contact with such people, through phone, video calls or, if your area allows, socially distanced walks.
Feeling listened to is hugely important, especially for people who might be experiencing suicidal thoughts. “Feelings of suicidality are signs we need to connect with people to tell them we feel danger,” adds McDermott. “Suicidal feelings are understandable and we can get help for them, but it’s important not to mistake the feeling for a fact. Just because you feel suicidal doesn’t mean you are, feelings come and go. Learning to share those feelings so they subside and leave is absolutely crucial.”
But while connection with others is a crucial part of staying mentally healthy, it is also important to note that many also feel lonely right now, despite being in a house full of people. “With our reduced circles of contact we don’t get to experience our full range of ways of being, we can be very different people with different friends or colleagues and family members,” says Warwick.
“It can help to identify this and to plan in different types of contact where possible. Talking about loneliness is crucial. Ot is a very normal reaction to what we are going through and worth raising with friends or even your GP if you do not have social contact. They will be able to support and guide you.”
And if thoughts of suicide begin to appear, do reach out. “The figures show that you are not alone in feeling how you do,” she adds. “Many people feel that they can’t speak to those around them or do not want to worry them. Please do contact your GP or organisations such as the Samaritans, they are there to help you. Counsellors and psychotherapists also offer specialist support.”
Covid-19 is more than a news story – it has changed every aspect of life in the UK. We are following how Britain is experiencing this crisis, the different stages of collective emotion, reaction and resilience. You can tell us how you are feeling and find further advice and resources here.
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).