In the throes of the first lockdown, when weeks began to turn to months and Thursday evening claps became quieter, the sentiment that what we were experiencing then would change our lives forever was strong, but it was hard to wrap our heads around.
But then a few weeks away from the office became a permanent work from home set-up and masks on the train became a semi-permanent facet of our existence.
Queues outside the supermarket became the rule rather than the exception and, slowly but surely, we were shown just how quickly we could adapt to a new way of life.
For most, this was viewed as a negative and the effects on mental health were profound: In a survey of 6,305 people by BACP and YouGov, shared exclusively with Metro.co.uk earlier this year, it was found that of the 67% who said they had experienced any kind of mental health issue in the last five years, 85% said their mental health had been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
And among the people who hadn’t previously experienced mental health issues in the past five years, 48% said the same.
But was it all so negative?
While the implications of a series of lockdowns were most often dire, the darkest times usually provide us with the most growth – or at least a new perspective.
A new longitudinal study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research actually flipped some of those original findings on their heads: while the average wellbeing score for people with no previous mental illness decreased in 2020 compared with 2019, there was no decrease in mental wellbeing among people with longstanding physical or mental illnesses.
For some, their wellbeing score even increased.
The pandemic provided a reset in terms of weighing up what really mattered. It would be impossible not to take something positive away from such a huge culturally and societally significant event.
Eighteen months on, these are the mental health lessons we took from lockdown.
That I should prioritise fun – Tanyel, Metro.co.uk lifestyle writer
‘I now make sure I have plans to look forward to each week with a new ferocity that wasn’t there before.
‘I want to enjoy my social life and the world around me as much as I can, saying yes to new experiences and taking opportunities where they come.
‘I work hard, so I now make sure I play hard too. It’s become vital to disconnecting from work, rather than being ‘switched on’ all the time, which in turn helps my general wellbeing and state of mind.’
That I enjoy spending time with myself – Meg, environmental marketing and communications officer
‘Before lockdown, I was a victim of FOMO.
‘Every time I said no to something, I’d always end up going no matter how exhausted I was, and usually, I’d feel like it wasn’t worth it.
‘I was stuck in a cycle of feeling run down and physically exhausted – social energy, and a lack of it, is a real thing.
‘But, during lockdown I didn’t have FOMO at all because I knew I was never missing anything, everyone else was staying in
‘I had so much energy, I felt healthier, I tried out hobbies.
‘I found that I absolutely loved drinking red wine and watching movies on my own, I got into reading and I just realised that I really like hanging out with myself.’
That having a routine is paramount – Ellen, Metro.co.uk lifestyle and weekend editor
‘The one lesson I’ve learned from lockdown is that routine really is important.
‘It’s something nearly every guest on our mental health podcast, Mentally Yours, recommended, and it took me a while to actually take the advice, but once I did, it made a real difference.
‘I have little rituals from lockdown – like sitting and reading magazines on a Sunday morning and making myself a matcha latte – that I still do, and each time I try to really savour the moment.
‘That still brings some genuine joy to my day.’
That I need to prioritise my mental health above everything – Nina, Student and mental health activist
‘I realised during lockdown that I needed to take greater measures if I was to prioritise my mental health.
‘I have OCD, but the last time I accessed any therapy was when I was 17 and completing my A-Levels.
‘Luckily my OCD improved when in my first year of university, but when I had to study remotely during the pandemic, my mental health took a massive hit.
‘Despite there being only a few months until I was meant to graduate, I decided to take an interruption of study as I didn’t want to risk jeopardising my final grade if I knew I wasn’t well enough to continue, and I sought therapy again.
‘It gave me a sense of perspective and made me realise I needed to focus on myself and heal.
‘I learnt that actually putting my mental health above everything else is the most important thing, it doesn’t matter if that means I’ll take a little longer finishing my degree or if other things need to be postponed.
‘You can’t achieve your goals if you don’t look after yourself, and being healthy is a real privilege.’
That a slow way of life is a necessity for me – Anna, Student
‘I realised that the fast-paced life we’re so used to living is bad for my mental health and that I need to prioritise a slower way of life to keep myself in balance.
‘In lockdown, I just didn’t feel burnt out the way I do now.
‘Yes, my energy was lower because I wasn’t really doing as much but I felt like I had more downtime that would usually be spent commuting, meal-prepping, getting ready in the morning, etc.
‘Now that we’re out of lockdown, I allow myself to rest when I need to, try not to plan too much and say no when my schedule is getting too full.’
I learned to let go of the little things – Lizzie, Metro.co.uk lifestyle writer
‘I’ve very much learned to just try and be happy, and stop fretting about the minor things and relax more day-to-day.
‘This is something I struggled with for a long time before lockdown, but I think the pandemic really put things in perspective.
‘I essentially realised that, when you stop focusing and fixating on the tiny things and worries, it’s such a release and you’ll be so much happier and enjoy day to day life so much more.’
When there’s nothing to look forward to, I can make something – Cat, Media Trust mental health project manager
‘With all the cancelled birthdays, events and celebrations things felt pretty bleak, so my partner and I created themed events.
‘We had a “day at the seaside” with homemade fish and chips and fizzy pop; we put a YouTube of a beach on the TV and laid down a blue sheet and brown blanket to be the sand and the sea – it was thoroughly ridiculous, so much fun, and for once I didn’t have sand in my chips.
‘It was important for us to break up the monotony of lockdown with simple things to look forward to, and it showed us that we don’t need big events or fancy dates to feel excited about life.’
That productivity isn’t everything – Natalie, Metro.co.uk deputy lifestyle editor
‘My mental health lesson from lockdown has been finding self-worth in things other than work and “productivity”.
‘I used to thrive on being busy, and working really hard – I thought it meant I was a successful person, a good person, even if it was making me exhausted and unhappy.
‘Having all of that stripped away and an enforced slowness in its place has made me realise that my worth isn’t attached to how well I am doing professionally.
‘I have found it really helpful to find different ways to measure success, such as how rested I feel, how healthy I feel, how much time I get to spend with my family, how much fun I am having.
‘The pandemic has taught me that these things are more important than any promotion, or announcing some achievement on Twitter – so I want to hold on to that.’
That some things are out of your control – Simon, clinical safety officer
‘The biggest mental health lesson I took from lockdown was to be comfortable with the unknown.
‘Having chronic anxiety means that things which completely out of my control are difficult to manage.
‘Lockdown was so extreme that it led to a strange sense of acceptance which forced me to sit with the distress of “not knowing” and accept it for what it is.
‘It has helped me since as I badly broke my ankle a few weeks ago and this again took a great deal of the certainty out of my day-to-day.
‘Being able to sit with that uncertainty has helped me to focus on what recovery with no expectations.’
That I need to make time for the people I love – Ella, Metro.co.uk lifestyle writer
‘Lockdown took away one of the important things in my life: socialising.
‘With no work, university lectures or bottomless brunches, I was left feeling extremely lonely for the first time in my life.
‘But one thing that kept me sane was my WhatsApp group chat with my best friends and frequent phone calls with my mum.
‘It made me realise that I should always make time for my loved ones as, when my hobbies weren’t there to carry me through, and I’d watched every episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Glee, I always had my friends and family to make me feel safe and loved.’
To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.
Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.
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