People are social animals. We are meant to develop deep and lasting bonds that bring us comfort. Yet, here we are, isolated. The pandemic leaves no one unchanged.
Many have argued that our health anxieties are raised now more than ever. But just recently a study conducted at the University of Bath looked at survey responses from over 800 people recruited online and via social media who answered questions over a ten-day period when the UK was in full lockdown (from 17 – 26 April 2020).
The results suggest that a quarter of all participants revealed significantly elevated anxiety and depression, exacerbated by lockdown and isolation. Nearly 15% reached clinical levels of health anxiety – which is anxiety related to contracting a serious and life-threatening disease.
Lead author, Hannah Rettie from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology explains, “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused global uncertainty which has had a direct, detrimental effect on so many people across the UK and around the world. People have been unsure when they would see relatives again, job security has been rocked, there is an increased threat to many people’s health and government guidance is continuously changing, leading to much uncertainty and anxiety.”
Rettie goes on to say that some individuals have struggled to tolerate and adapt to these uncertainties – much more so than in normal times. Moreover, the effects are even more pronounced in vulnerable groups – as these individuals report twice the rates of health-related anxiety than the general population. Those who identified themselves in these categories were on average more anxious and depressed, with anxiety and health anxiety specifically significantly higher than in non-vulnerable groups.
One of the most important findings, suggest the researchers, is that those in vulnerable groups who demonstrate significantly higher levels of distress are those most likely to have shielded for longest. The takeaway is that the mental health effects of isolation are compounded over time.
One way clinicians and therapists can help people during the pandemic is to work on strategies to tolerate uncertainty. It is also important to understand that anxiety is a normal and necessary response to isolation. It is an indication that we are social animals and thrive on our sense of human connection. The trick during a pandemic is to find ways to stay as connected as possible – while staying safe.