200 days of lockdown could trigger 'surge' in PTSD, experts warn

Young woman with small boy standing by window, prevention and protection.
Lockdown was enforced in the UK on 23 March, with restrictions since ebbing and flowing. (Posed by models, Getty Images)

Two hundred days into the UK’s lockdown, experts have warned the coronavirus outbreak could trigger a “surge” in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases.

Boris Johnson enforced the “stay at home” measure on 23 March. While restrictions have since ebbed and flowed, life is yet to return to normal.

The mental health consequences of the pandemic were flagged early on, with scientists stressing it could have a “profound” and “pervasive” impact for some time.

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Since the coronavirus was formally identified on 31 December 2019, millions of people worldwide have lost loved ones, been made redundant or even become seriously ill themselves.

While those who have been directly affected by the coronavirus may be emotionally scarred, 200 days of draconian measures could also have a lasting impact on any of us, the experts have warned.

Thoughtful man looking out the window in bedroom at home
Lockdown could lead to a 'surge' in PTSD cases, even among people not directly affected by the coronavirus, experts have warned. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

“Health professionals are predicting 200 days and longer [of lockdown] could have a lasting impact on our mental welfare, with a surge in patients with PTSD,” Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh, a psychologist working with Healthspan, told Yahoo UK.

“Data reveals previous pandemics such as SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and swine flu, which did not have the lockdown we are experiencing, resulted in higher levels of PTSD, stress and depression.

“GPs have already begun reporting an increase in the number of patients with anxiety, depression and trauma symptoms.

“There is the real possibility the prevalence of mental health conditions will rise amongst those with and without COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] as restrictions are lifted and people struggle to deal with their mental experiences.”

Key workers, particularly hospital staff, may be among the worst affected.

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“They may have witnessed the deaths of patients, colleagues and indeed the death of loved ones,” Liz Ritchie, a psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Healthcare, told Yahoo UK.

Hospital staff are far from the only people expected to be affected, however.

“Many, including those who have lost jobs during the pandemic, may have a strong emotional reaction to the trauma of COVID-19 long after the pandemic passes,” said Ritchie.

“All of these people may be at greater risk of developing long term difficulties and could potentially exhibit symptoms of PTSD in the future.”

These may include flashbacks of the traumatic event, nightmares and even physical sensations like sweating, pain or nausea.

In June, the charity The Children’s Trust warned youngsters are already experiencing PTSD as a result of the pandemic.

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Insomnia is another issue thought to have been exacerbated by lockdown.

Scientists from King’s College London found up to half (50%) of Britons may be enduring more disturbed sleep, rising to just under two thirds (62%) among those facing financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic.

Read more: What is long COVID?

One study also suggested more than half of Britons snacked more, exercised less and comfort-ate during the height of lockdown.

While the “stay at home” restriction was never intended to be permanent, experts have warned the bad habits could linger on.

“Two hundred days is long enough to make a habit of disrupted sleep, poorer eating and lower physical activity patterns, which can lead to stress, anxiety, unease and dysfunction,” said Dr Campbell-Danesh.

How to maintain mental health as the pandemic continues

No one can say for sure when the pandemic will pass, with Dr Campbell-Danesh therefore recommending people find coping mechanisms, rather than eagerly awaiting some semblance of normality.

“Positive strategies include creating a regular eating, exercise and sleep schedule,” he said.

This includes eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as finding work outs you enjoy.

While restrictions allow it, go on a socially-distanced walk with a loved one and spend as much time outside as possible, added Dr Campbell-Danesh.

He also recommends practicing mindfulness, yoga or meditation to help you cope during this challenging period, as well as contacting a therapist if it all gets too much.

“The key to all of these areas is to focus on activities you enjoy, rather than feeling obliged to pick up the latest fad or trend,” he said.

“Remind yourself every little bit counts.

“Rather than attempting to make radical changes to your lifestyle, which is often unsustainable, start small in one area and try to maintain that change for nine to 10 weeks.

“When it comes to mental and physical health, slow and steady wins the race.”

Ritchie also stresses the importance of acknowledging any negative emotions.

“Focus on what you can control in your life,” she said. “This can help alleviate stress and bring a sense of peace.

“Don’t judge yourself, but give yourself permission to feel the way you feel. Life is full of ups and downs and tough times. This is no exception.”

While the immediate future may seem bleak, remember this too shall pass.

“Be mindful that nothing is forever,” said Ritchie.

“We have the opportunity to learn from this experience and we can become better at overcoming challenges in the future.

“Well done on surviving 200 days of COVID restrictions.”

For confidential emotional support at times of distress, contact The Samaritans at any time by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org.

People can also text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line or text “YM” if they are under 19.

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