The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major effect on our lives, and for many, it’s made a lasting impact on our mental health.
In a recent UK study, 25% of participants showed significantly advanced anxiety and depression during lockdown. New European research also highlights the significant mental health impact of issues such as fear of the unknown, social isolation, health anxiety and economic uncertainty.
With restrictions now easing across Europe, we’re facing the next big adjustment – getting back out into the world. Here, Lead GP at Livi Dr Rhianna McClymont and Livi Psychologist Dag Härdfeldt address the potential mental health implications of the pandemic, and share their advice on dealing with post-Covid anxiety.
Emerging research suggests there’s a specific mental health impact associated with coronavirus-related trauma. At this stage, though, there isn’t strong enough evidence to recognise post-Covid stress disorder as an official diagnosis.
‘Post-Covid stress disorder is suggested to be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has developed due to a traumatic experience with Covid-19,’ explains Dr McClymont. ‘PTSD causes symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and reliving the sensations or experiences of the trauma.’
This seems to be most common in people who have been severely unwell with Covid-19 – particularly those who were hospitalised and feared they might lose their life, Dr McClymont says. ‘PTSD symptoms may also appear in those who have had other traumatic experiences, such as losing loved ones, or frontline workers in very stressful situations.’
If you’ve been ill with Covid-19, you might feel an increased sense of hopelessness and a weakened belief in your ability to influence your life, and you might find it more difficult to think positively about the future, says Härdfeldt.
A study published in The Lancet found an estimated 1 in 3 patients showed signs of a neurological condition in the following 6 months after having Covid-19. This increased to almost half of patients who had been admitted to intensive care.
‘We feel less of a sense of control because we’re fighting an invisible enemy. A loss of control in combination with a high degree of uncertainty can be incredibly stressful for the mind.’ says Härdfeldt.
For those suffering with long-term effects, known as long Covid, the risk of depression and anxiety may be even greater. ‘One of the main triggers of depression is that you lose connection with the things that are valuable in your life,’ Härdfeldt explains. ‘The loss of function from long Covid – not being able to do the things you enjoy – could significantly increase your risk of depression.’
Psychologists have also seen an increase in anxiety, avoidance and obsessive-compulsive behaviours during the pandemic. This is understandable, Härdfeldt explains. ‘Covid-19 has created an atmosphere where we’ve been encouraged to avoid everything as much as possible and wash our hands over and over again,’ he says.
While these safety behaviours have been necessary for public health, they can also increase anxiety in the long term – which could explain why you feel uneasy about mixing with larger groups of people now that lockdown is easing.
Some simple lifestyle changes and self-care techniques can help you to cope with general fears and anxieties about re-entering the post-Covid world.
‘Prioritising quality sleep and reducing your alcohol and caffeine intake will usually help,’ Dr McClymont suggests. ‘Meditation, yoga and mindfulness are also very good ways of training your mind to be calmer and reducing your anxiety levels.’
While these small changes won’t take away the issues you’re anxious about, they can help you feel more resilient and better able to cope.
If you’re worried about returning to work or education, Härdfeldt recommends treating it as an opportunity for post-traumatic growth.
‘Instead of trying to return to how things were, try to create a better understanding of your life,’ he says. ‘Experiences like the pandemic force people to confront what really matters – our core values. So you might, for example, want to make changes like creating a better work-life balance. Use this time to re-evaluate what your core values are and try to put changes in place that you wouldn’t have made before.’
If you’re struggling with social anxiety, try to be as compassionate with yourself as you can, Härdfeldt suggests. After a year of social isolation, it’s understandable that you might feel anxious about returning to an office environment or the crowded social situations that felt normal before the pandemic. Don’t beat yourself up over it, and go slow.
It can be easy to fall into an ‘all or nothing’ mindset, Härdfeldt says. If you don’t feel comfortable socialising in busy bars or restaurants yet, it might be tempting to avoid social contact altogether. Instead, he recommends thinking about options that feel more manageable.
If you’re still feeling uneasy about public places, why not arrange smaller, more private meet-ups? You could start by just having your immediate family over for dinner or meeting a small group of friends for drinks outside.
‘There’s a possibility that the pandemic may have had more of an effect than you realise, and it’s important to use the tools and professionals available to help you navigate this,’ Härdfeldt says.
For milder anxiety symptoms, self-help tools and resources like online courses, books or mental health apps may be useful for managing your symptoms by yourself, says Dr McClymont.
‘If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety or distress, don’t try to fix it yourself,’ says Härdfeldt. There’s always help available and if your symptoms are having a significant impact on your life, book an appointment to discuss it with a doctor or therapist.’
They will talk you through the treatment options available. This may include referring you for psychological treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or recommending medications to help manage your anxiety in the short term.
This article has been medically approved by Lead GP at Livi Dr Rhianna McClymont and Livi Psychologist Dag Härdfeldt.