The Impact of Covid-19 on Mental Health

The UK Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Association recently conducted a study on the impact of lockdown on mental health. After we saw the data published, we asked a psychologist to explain the results.

Maria Markou
November 2020

Fear is a powerful natural emotional response induced by perceived or real threat. At times of uncertainty fear and anxiety are also very common. Life is filled with uncertainty, yet as human beings we crave security, we want to feel safe and in control over our lives. With the COVID-19 pandemic we have all become familiar with uncertainty. Uncertainty over health, the economy, relationships, finances, employment are some areas that uncertainty has revealed itself for many of us. To add to this, are the significant changes to our everyday lives. In an effort to control the transmission of the virus, governments have enacted drastic measures (i.e., social distancing, closure of businesses and schools, restricted access to parks) that are disrupting every aspect of our life, including our exercise routines. Although this strategy has been effective in controlling the virus, it has also been associated with undesirable effects on our physical and mental health.  Social distancing can leave us feeling isolated and lonely as we are cut off from loved ones that could have offered support during this difficult time. Quarantine is confining people to their homes making it difficult to stay active. All these changes, in addition to the fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues.

UKBJJA Covid Survey
UKBJJA Covid Survey
UKBJJA Covid Survey

Physical activity has largely been described as a protective factor to those without mental health difficulties and as a tool to cope for those living with diagnosed mental health disorders. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a ‘state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. Ample evidence indicates that even the modest amount of physical activity can have profoundly positive effects, particularly to individuals with symptoms of depression and anxiety and can also improve the quality of sleep and energy levels, relieve stress and boost the overall mood and sense of well-being. Physical activity has not only been linked to long-term benefits in mental health but also to immediate benefits on mood and anxiety, which is why physical activity can be an effective tool to cope with the mental and physical consequences of the COVID-19 quarantine.

While many of us understand the mental and physical benefits of engaging in some form of physical activity, you might have noticed that maintaining physical activity at this moment, has become more like a “should” rather than “I want to”. Skipping a workout has become more tempting and negative emotions, lack of motivation and energy more frequent.

When we’re feeling “down”, it’s common to lose interest or motivation in activities that we usually enjoy. Negative mood often leads us to behave in ways that reduce distress in the short-term but make us feel worse in long-term. This may often include, social withdrawal, avoidance of situations that increase our distress levels, and procrastinating. In other words, negative mood, keeps us from doing the things that bring enjoyment and meaning to our life. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we are also limited on the things we are able to do that bring us joy, including exercise.

UKBJJA Covid Survey
UKBJJA Covid Survey

Just like our thoughts influence how we feel, our behaviours also affect our emotions. So, withdrawal, avoidance and isolation, although may feel validating and may help us feel better at that moment, they are exacerbating negative mood. So, engaging in activities that are rewarding to us and are consistent with the life that we want to live is far more difficult at this present time.

Recognise the signs

Common signs to be mindful of, if they become more frequent include:

  • Not enjoying things as much as you used to
  • Continuous low mood, sadness, tearfulness, emptiness and hopelessness
  • Changes in sleep (increased or decreased)
  • Changes in appetite (increased or decreased)
  • Anger, irritability and intolerance of others more than before
  • Thoughts about harming yourself
  • Moving or speaking slower than usual

These symptoms are common and may come and go for most people, especially during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic that we are currently experiencing. However, if you are constantly feeling sad, anxious and irritable and notice that these symptoms are affecting your daily function at home, work or with your friends and family, you may need to seek professional help.

Do the opposite of what your brain tells you to do

We often wait to feel better or more motivated before doing something. Although it may seem counterintuitive to engage in a behaviour that’s different than how you feel, you’ll find that when you push yourself to do even one activity, you’ll often begin to feel better. The difficult part is to push yourself when you are not motivated. When we are feeling anxious and depressed, our body wants us to do everything we can to stay in that negative state. So, when we are feeling depressed and anxious, we cannot wait for our brain to give us the motivation to do things. Rather than waiting until we feel better to do things, we need to do things to feel better. In other words, “Action precedes motivation.”

There are some things that we can do to help us start engaging in different behaviours that can help change our mood:

Identify one activity to engage during the next days

When we schedule activities, we want to find those that are important to us or that we enjoy, so that we are likely to do them again. These are called value-driven activities. So, when you’re choosing your activities, try to think of what’s uniquely important to you. What matters to you? Come up with specific activities that really matter to you. This will help give you that extra boost of motivation when your mood is down.

    • Imagine yourself one week from today – what activity would make you feel better if you completed it?

It might be easier to start with the easiest activities first. This will help build up a sense of accomplishment that can help with your motivation and help with the harder activities next.

Be specific, honest and accountable

Identify exactly what you want to do in specific terms.  Think about how and when you are going to do that activity and schedule time to do it (i.e., What? When? How?). Be honest with yourself. Is this goal realistic, reasonable, rewarding, relevant to you? You can also pair an activity with something you enjoy doing to increase the chance that you will do that behaviour (i.e., think about exercising and listening to music). Let others know about your efforts/goals. The need to be accountable to others can be very important to help push you when you need that motivation.

Maintain a routine

Establishing and maintain a daily routine, especially when in quarantine, adds structure to your day and helps with your mood. Schedule even the simplest things such as time for breakfast, lunch and dinner and include activities (as mentioned above), time for exercise at home and time for communicating with friends and family, including virtual contact.

Mental health is important for our overall health and wellbeing as it can affect how we think, act and handle stress during emergencies. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. Emotional distress, including sadness, fear, worry and irritability are all expected responses during the COVID-19 pandemic. If these emotions become overwhelming and impact your daily life, consider consulting a mental health professional.