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'The lack of clarity can create anxiety': How the new lockdown rules may impact people's mental health

‘Our brains hate not knowing,’ says clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd

Olivia Petter
Monday 18 May 2020 08:13 BST
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A third of us are more stressed about money than we were before the virus hit
A third of us are more stressed about money than we were before the virus hit

On Sunday 10 May, Boris Johnson delivered a speech to the nation outlining a road map for how England’s lockdown restrictions would be eased in the coming weeks.

The announcement came after Britons have spent almost two months being told to stay in their homes with very few exceptions, such as taking one form of daily exercise, shopping for essential items, and going to work as a key worker.

Such restrictions, which Mr Johnson described as “a kind that we have never seen before in peace or war”, have been in place since 23 March.

Now, however, the new guidance means people will have a few more liberties, such as being permitted to take part in unlimited outdoor exercise and restart open-air sporting activities.

People will also be permitted to sunbathe in local parks and meet up with one person from outside their household, so long as they do so in a public place and remain at least two metres away from one another.

Additionally, to reflect the easing of the lockdown, the government’s motto “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” has been replaced with: “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”.

Such changes, while minor, could have a major impact on our mental health, say psychologists.

In terms of the benefits, being able to meet up socially with one person outside of one’s household may alleviate loneliness, says chartered psychologist Daria Kuss.

“It means that individuals will be able to see one member of their family or friendship circle again face-to-face, which could reduce stress levels and raise mood and general wellbeing.”

Additionally, the unlimited exercise rule means being able to spend more time outdoors and in the sun, which Kuss says may improve overall mood thanks to the absorption of vitamin D.

Phillip Schofield rages about confusion over lockdown guidance on This Morning

“This has beneficial effects on how we feel,” she adds. “In addition to this, exercise releases endorphins, making us happy, and energises us. So being able to exercise as much as you like may support relieving feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.”

The new guidelines will be particularly beneficial to those who do not have gardens and have therefore only been able to spend limited periods outdoors.

However, the ambiguity surrounding the guidance, particularly the government’s new mantra to “stay alert” rather than “stay home”, could exacerbate anxieties.

“There is a significant lack of clarity in the term, ‘Stay Alert’,” says Marc Hekster, consultant clinical psychologist at The Summit Clinic in north London.

“At times of crisis people look to the authority or authorities for certainty, and if not that then for re-assurance. Re-assurance is often characterised by the existence of boundaries and clear parameters.

"The lack of clarity or clear boundaries can create anxiety and conflict that sees some people follow one set of rules while others have interpreted them differently."

​The problem, Hekster explains, is also that “Stay Alert” could mean any number of things.

“It might for some people mean nothing more than a daily need to be aware of what is going on around us,” he adds. “The ‘Alert’ does not refer to anything in particular. This may create further uncertainty, and in the face of this, people might feel initially relieved, but later in the coming weeks begin to wonder what it actually means.”

Given how little is known about this coronavirus, people may already feel overwhelmed by the lack of information and scientific evidence - hence why clarity is needed now more than ever.

It’s not just the new motto, either. The government’s messaging has not been entirely clear. The prime minister has encouraged people to return to work if they cannot work from home but to simultaneously avoid public transport, leaving those without cars or bikes unable to get to work.

Uncertainty is one of the key triggers for anxiety

Dr Jessamy Hibberd

Similarly, there is no certainty in terms of timelines. While Mr Johnson outlined some timings in his speech on Sunday evening – such as primary schools reopening on 1 June – they are all subject to change depending on the R number and various other factors.

None of this is particularly helpful when you consider that uncertainty is one of the key triggers for anxiety, says psychologist and author Dr Jessamy Hibberd.

“Thanks to evolution and survival of the fittest, our brains have a wired response to uncertainty that shifts control over to the limbic system, the place where emotions, such as anxiety and fear, are generated (rather than rational thought). In the face of uncertainty – fear ensured survival,” she explains.

“As a result, our brains hate not knowing!⁣ Having a clear answer and having something to focus on gives us a sense of control.⁣

“When we experience uncertainty our brain presumes the worst, we overestimate threats and underestimate our ability to handle them.”

As for when more restrictions will be lifted and people will be able to regain a semblance of normality, only time will tell.

For now, all we can do is make the most of the liberties we do have.

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