What Is the COVID-19 Lockdown Doing to Our Mental Health?

Sure, it may seem like a no-brainer. But now we have evidence to prove what could happen—physically and mentally—after a month of quarantine.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

In the time of COVID-19, things move fast—and that goes for research, too. In fact, researchers out of the University of Sydney and the University of Adelaide in Australia have already conducted and published a study about the wellbeing of adults going through lockdown due to the virus.

Researchers wanted to know: How does all this time cooped up under such stressful circumstances affect people’s health? Well, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people mentally, as well as physically, says a study published in Psychiatry Research. Sure, it may seem like a no-brainer. But now we have evidence to prove it.

The main findings of the preliminary study include:

  • Adults in locations more affected by the virus experienced distress, lower physical and mental health, and reduced life satisfaction.

  • Adults who had existing chronic health conditions were at increased risk of lowered mental and physical health during lockdown.

  • Adults who had stopped working during lockdown were also at higher risk of harm to their mental and physical health.

To gather this data, researchers spoke to 369 adults living in 64 Chinese cities after they have been living in isolation due to measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 for one full month (in February of 2020).

"As many parts of the world are only just beginning to go into lockdown, we examined the impact of the one-month long lockdown on people's health, distress and life satisfaction," said study author Stephen Zhang, Ph.D., associate professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Adelaide, in a news release. He says the study may act like a “crystal ball” for what’s ahead for people in other countries where lockdown measures are approaching that one-month mark, like Australia and the United States.

The study suggests that adults with chronic medical issues reported lower life satisfaction during the outbreak—notable, considering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that those certain chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease are at an increased risk of severe complications should they get ill with COVID-19.

Employment situations played a major role, too: Of those surveyed, more than one-fourth continued to go to work in an office setting. Thirty-eight percent worked from home, and 25 percent stopped work completely during the outbreak.

"We weren't surprised that adults who stopped working reported worse mental and physical health conditions as well as distress,” study co-author Andreas Rauch, a professor at the University of Sydney, said in the news release. “Work can provide people with a sense of purpose and routine, which is particularly important during this global pandemic."

Another interesting finding in this study? Those who exercised more than 2.5 hours per day during lockdown reported lower life satisfaction, and those who exercised for half an hour or less reported positive life satisfaction. The study authors found these results surprising.

"It's possible adults who exercised less could better justify or rationalize their inactive lifestyles in more severely affected cities,” said Dr. Zhang. “More research is needed but these early findings suggest we need to pay attention to more physically active individuals, who might be more frustrated by the restrictions."
While physical health is a major concern during this time, don’t let your mental health fall by the wayside. The CDC reports that it’s normal to feel extra stressed, anxious, or afraid during the COVID-19 pandemic—so it’s all the more important to take proactive steps to support your mental health during these unprecedented times. That may mean seeking the support of a therapist via telehealth, practicing self-care and relaxation techniques, and focusing on what you can control, experts say.

Other ways to cope with stress during this time include the following, per the CDC:

  • Listen to your body’s needs. During this stressful time, making your body a priority can be helpful. That may look like taking deep breaths, eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep, and staying active.

  • Take breaks from the news. When you turn on the TV or scroll through social media, it’s all pandemic talk, all the time. Taking a time-out from consuming news on the virus can be good for your mental health.

  • Make time for connection. We may be social distancing right now, but there are still ways to connect with others. Schedule video calls with friends and family to stay in touch and find support.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.