Flashes of temper and frustration. Hours spent struggling to get to sleep at night. Anxious thoughts, lethargy and dreams riddled with catastrophe. All are common side effects of stress. But as we approach the third month of coronavirus restrictions which have changed our daily lives beyond recognition, all have become increasingly common symptoms of the UK’s Covid-19 crisis as we struggle to cope.
The latest data from the Office of National Statistics is startling – revealing that four in five Britons are worried about the effect coronavirus is having on their lives. And the rolling YouGov mood tracker survey, which collates thousands of responses every week, also shows people reporting far more negative emotions than usual.
Professor Lucy Yardley, an expert in experimental psychology at the University of Bristol, has certainly noticed the drift. She said: ‘In normal times, over the past three years, the dominant thing people have said is that they feel happy.
Spending too long in bed could lead to worse quality sleep, experts have warned as people have been feeling bored, scared, frustrated, low and angry
‘Since lockdown, more people have been saying they feel bored, scared, frustrated, low and angry – all sorts of negative emotions.
‘Partly, it’s due to fear about the virus itself and catching it, anxiety about loved ones becoming seriously ill and the impact of people losing their financial security – or worrying that this might happen.
‘We know from studies that quarantine is hard to deal with in the long term and that social isolation is bad for mental health. But no one has been quarantined on this large a scale and for so long.’
It’s no coincidence, either, that the hashtag #cantsleep has been trending on Twitter as the continuing uncertainty begins to affect our ability to switch off and relax.
And there are concerns that the number of people seeking mental health support during the crisis has plummeted by up to 40 per cent, potentially storing up more complex problems for later.
Now, as the Government begins its first tentative relaxation of lockdown rules, we face a new problem: how do we come out of a state of quarantine with our mental health intact?
Two distinct groups are emerging – those planning to abandon the restrictions to plough on with their lives, and those who remain highly anxious about any transition back to normal.
Thankfully, experts say it is possible to find a middle ground between panic and reckless abandon. There are simple, everyday techniques that we can use to help us sleep better, reduce stress and promote calm – all of which will benefit our overall health as we move into the next stage of managing the pandemic.
The body arms itself while you slumber
Professor Lucy Yardley of the University of Bristol said the lockdown is having an impact on the nation’s mental health with some people feeling anxious from being quarantined for so long
Sleep is the ‘canary in the mine’ for our mental health, according to experts – so if we’re struggling to drop off, or waking up during the night, it’s a sign that the stresses and anxieties caused by coronavirus are taking their toll.
And yet, getting a decent amount of sleep is now more important than ever.
Sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows, founder of The Sleep School, said: ‘Research has shown getting seven to eight hours each night helps enhance the function of T-cells, a type of white blood cell that attacks and kills viruses.
‘And sleep plays a role in producing cytokines, proteins required for our immune systems to quickly communicate with our cells to ensure our body’s timely response to harmful invaders.’
So how to solve our growing national sleep debt?
A big part of the problem is we’re not in our usual routines. Our days are more stressful as many home-educate children while working.
Others are sleeping later in the mornings in the absence of a commute, according to Prof Yardley, and this in turn pushes back the time we fall asleep.
She recommends trying to stick to pre-pandemic routines and setting your alarm for the time you’d normally get up so that you’re tired by bedtime.
Once you’re awake, go for a walk in the sunlight – a US study found that it reinforces the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, and not only helps promote better sleep at night but reduces stress and depression.
We all know drinking alcohol and caffeine has a negative impact on health. And there are other pitfalls: avoid using a phone or tablet for an hour before bedtime – studies show the blue wavelengths of light they emit suppresses release of the sleep hormone melatonin which makes it harder to wind down.
‘It’s also a question of what you’re doing online,’ adds Prof Yardley.
‘If you’re interacting on Facebook or Twitter, or catching up with the latest coronavirus updates, that’s not very calming.’
A surprising method for those who find themselves waking in the middle of the night is sleep restriction therapy which, counter-intuitively, involves spending less time in bed than normal.
The idea is that excessive time in bed can perpetuate sleep problems. To start, you need to find out the average time you sleep (rather than go to or get out of bed) – the easiest way to do this is with a sleep tracking app on your smartphone, or with a fitness tracker that measures sleep.
Then, limit your time in bed to the amount of time you sleep. The easiest way to do this is to push your bedtime back.
So, if you naturally sleep for about six hours in total, and normally get up at 7am, then go to bed at 1am.
Do not go below four and a half hours in bed, though, as this can lead to extreme tiredness and be counterproductive. If this method works for you, you’ll begin to sleep more soundly almost straight away. Each week pull your bedtime forward by 15 to 20 minutes, without moving your waking time.
If you find you start sleeping less well, push the bedtime back again by the same amount.
Continue this for eight weeks – it helps to keep a sleep diary throughout. There are numerous resources online for more detail.
If you naturally sleep for about six hours, then you should wait until 1am to go to bed if you set your alarm for 7am
Those with ‘high risk’ jobs such as drivers, construction workers or those working with heavy machinery are not advised to do this without medical supervision.
Another option, if you can’t sleep – or wake up for long periods during the night – is to get up.
Prof Yardley says: ‘Don’t stay in bed. Do something boring, like the ironing. You might be more tired the next day, but you’ll make up for it the following night.’
One of the few things we can now do more is exercise – which has an effect similar to sleeping pills, according to sleep experts at the respected Johns Hopkins medical unit in the United States.
‘There are new opportunities and challenges at this point in the pandemic,’ Prof Yardley says. ‘For people feeling the pain of lockdown, they might feel frustrated and disappointed that exercise is all we’re able to do. But it can help more than you might think. It helps get rid of frustration, will send you to sleep more quickly and improve the quality of your sleep.’
How to worry… just enough
Stress is normal right now – but two extremes of mindsets seem to be emerging, which experts say may not be entirely healthy.
On one hand, there are those who are angry and frustrated at the rules which continue to be imposed on our freedoms – and feel no true risk from the virus.
Others are anxious about the end of the restrictions, with no plans to end their isolation any time soon.
Neither are entirely rooted in the reality of our predicament – and both, as opposing as they are, have a similar root cause: fear. Studies show heightened anxiety disrupts the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and problem-solving. It’s this which leads to panic-buying, fixations with cooking and tidying – and overzealously following rules, to the point sufferers become furious if anyone else is perceived to be breaking them.
And, according to Catherine Sanderson, professor of psychology at Amherst College in Massachusetts, others assert control over their situation by underplaying the risks, and wilfully ignoring or defying the rules.
‘To conform to social distancing would mean facing up to fears,’ Prof Sanderson says. ‘We see the same thing with those who are very worried about the risk of developing breast cancer, refusing to attend screening appointments.’
There are ways both groups can alleviate their stress – without resorting to either breaking the rules or locking themselves away.
Catherine Sanderson, professor of psychology at Amherst College in Massachusetts said some people who refuse to confirm to social distancing rules are similar to those who refuse to attend a breast screening appointment because they are worried about getting cancer
The most significant benefit of relaxing the lockdown rules is that we can now meet single individuals from outside our households – provided that we do so outdoors and stay 6ft apart. And that, in itself, will help keep us calm, and provide a dose of reality.
‘Meeting face-to-face will have huge effects on your mental wellbeing, and theirs,’ Prof Yardley says. ‘Non-verbal communication – body language, small gestures, tone of voice – which we don’t get on video calls or text messages, is incredibly important.’
Take advantage, too, of being able to exercise as much as you want.
‘Stress causes cortisol to get pumped into our muscles and it doesn’t wash away,’ psychotherapist Noel McDermott says. ‘It builds up. You have to physically do something to get rid of it.’
But being by yourself can also be beneficial, whether you’re sitting quietly listening to music or going for a walk to the park.
Studies have shown that just being outside can have a positive impact on stress levels.
For people struggling with the idea of leaving their homes, it’s even more important to do so – to reassure yourself that it’s safe.
Studies have shown that just being outside can have a positive impact on stress levels
Prof Yardley says: ‘Very gently and carefully start resuming the things that you’re scared of. Step by step you’ll discover it’s safe.’
Challenging ‘unhelpful’ thoughts, such as fears about the virus, is also crucial, according to McDermott. ‘You may feel like the outside is a terrifying place but change anything central to our lives and it will be stressful. We’re all experiencing change now – but not changes we’ve chosen.
‘So, first of all, challenge your fears – are they real or is it just the change that’s scary?
‘Then find elements of this experience that you can have control over. What positives could come from it? What are you grateful for? Decide to start jogging, to have a walk twice a day or meet a friend in the park.’
For those tempted to flout the rules, seek out accurate information about the risk – beware the tendency to rely on facts that support our beliefs, says psychologist Jivan Dempsey. It will also make you feel more in control.
Try also to keep busy to stave off boredom, which could tempt you to break the rules.
For both camps, a website called Germ Defence, developed by Prof Yardley and her team with Government Covid-19 funding, gives advice on protecting against infection.
‘What I’d say to people who are anxious about the risk of infection – or who aren’t and who should be – is that the website gives very concise information about reducing risk and planning how to do that in a range of scenarios.
‘Even if you can’t prevent exposure, you can control how much of the virus you’re exposed to. This could stop you becoming really ill.’