To say the past two years (and counting) has been tough on collective mental health is to grossly undersell the experience. Like everyone, we tried to find the beauty in a bad situation where we could (time with immediate family, time to reflect, time… when all we had was time). This is a good coping mechanism, but there’s no getting around the fact that it was extremely taxing on our physical and mental health. Health concerns aside (though part of it), a big contributor to this was, and is, lockdowns. While we might not be currently experiencing official lockdown, there is a residual mental toll, and isolation is still a requirement. Regardless of where any of us sit on their efficacy and necessity, we can all agree that it hit us hard.
What happens to our brains in lockdown?
In our lifetime, lockdowns are unchartered territory, so there’s little research on its effects, specifically, as yet. However, there are some preliminary studies that are identifying the issues it has caused based on what we do know about how stress and anxiety affect the brain. According to a survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) mid last year, one third of participating Victorians reported high levels of psychological distress, with young people (25 years and under), women and people with disabilities cited as being affected the most. At the time, other states were not in lockdown, or were in the very early stages, while Victoria was in stage 4 lockdowns. With this in mind, other states had just 18% of participants report the same mental health status.
So, why is this the case? Essentially, it’s the symptoms of lockdown that cause cognitive ability to slow down; this includes decision making, and an ability to regulate stress, anxiety and depressive feelings. When we are temporarily stressed, startled or scared, the amygdala (the brain’s fear centre) activates a stress response (hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical (HPA)) that is used to regulate cortisol (the stress hormone). This is our brain’s way of responding to a threat, and giving our body a chance to ‘fight or flight’ with greater blood flow to the muscles and an increased heart rate. However, it is designed to be temporary; just enough for the danger to pass, where our stress, fear and anxiety would then subside.
This can happen through any state of stress, including common environments prior to lockdown: work, family gatherings, social occasions. The difference with lockdown is the equal presence of consistently being in a stressful situation, and not knowing when that situation will end, while being unable to fight or flight (and release the energy spike). The danger does not pass, and the stress continues, while also omitting typical go-to outlets such as more time outside, exercise, time communicating away from a screen, and time spent in multiple stimulating environments.
How does lockdown affect our health?
With this elevated, consistent stress experience, the release of the stress hormone (that can lead to anxiety and panic attacks, even without prior instances of them) over time can impact other areas of your body. Particularly your digestive system, your immune system and your ability to reach REM sleep.
You might find that you become more fatigued for longer periods of time, have cramps, sore joints and move a little slower than usual. You might find that your cognitive ability is also jeopardised: unable to concentrate for long periods, difficulty completing tasks or even holding conversations.
How can you combat the effects of lockdown?
Again, while we are not technically in lockdown, we are still experiencing self-isolation and regulated isolation periods, while also simply navigating our way out of lockdown when the reason lockdown occurred is still very present.
How you combat it is largely dependent on the level of stress you personally experience, and where on the treatment spectrum you may sit. For example, if it is mild stress, it may be a case of simply introducing stress management habits into your life, trying to get more sleep, or reintroducing regular exercise. However, if you feel you are experiencing a more extreme level of stress and its symptoms, it might mean you require professional help from a naturopath, a psychologist or any other medical profession you feel confident in.
If you need help with your stress levels after lockdown, contact our friendly CK Health team today.