Don’t have to be sick to suffer: Coronavirus lockdowns, restrictions can worsen mental health

SYDNEY — Even if you don’t catch the coronavirus, your health still can suffer significantly, particularly if you’re living near a hot spot or are faced with heavy restrictions. A new study by researchers at the University of Sydney shows some of the earliest evidence that the outbreak deeply affects people mentally in addition to physically.

The preliminary results show that adults in locations more severely affected by COVID-19 suffered from distress, lower physical and mental health overall, and lower life satisfaction.

Researchers from three Australian universities — the University of Adelaide, Tongji University, and the University of Sydney — surveyed 369 adults living in 64 cities in China after they had lived under confinement and shelter-in-place measures in February.

Lead author Dr. Stephen Zhang of the University of Adelaide said the study determined that adults suffering from existing health conditions and those who were laid off, or otherwise stopped working, as those affected the most by the quarantine.

“As many parts of the world are only just beginning to go into lockdown, we examined the impact of the one-month long lockdown on people’s health, distress and life satisfaction,” said Dr. Zhang in a media release. “The study offers somewhat of a ‘crystal ball’ into the mental health of Australian residents once they have been in the lockdown for one month.”

The research also suggested that adults living in areas greatly affected by coronavirus reported negative life satisfaction only if they had chronic medical issues. Those without existing health issues did not report negative life satisfaction.

More than a quarter of the participants worked at an office during the lockdown period in China, while 38% worked from home. Another 25% had jobs before the lockdown, but stopped working after the outbreak. Individuals who lost their job or were forced to stop working during the coronavirus outbreak suffered the most mentally, the researchers say.

“We weren’t surprised that adults who stopped working reported worse mental and physical health conditions as well as distress,” said co-author and University of Sydney professor Andreas Rauch. “Work can provide people with a sense of purpose and routine, which is particularly important during this global pandemic.”

And while it may seem that the benefit of having more time to exercise would be a good thing. Yet, interestingly, the study revealed that people who exercised more than 2.5 hours per day reported worse life satisfaction. Conversely, people who exercised for half an hour or less reported the opposite.

“We were really surprised by the findings around exercising hours because it appears to be counter-intuitive,” noted Dr. Zhang. “It’s possible adults who exercised less could better justify or rationalize their inactive lifestyles in more severely affected cities. More research is needed but these early findings suggest we need to pay attention to more physically active individuals, who might be more frustrated by the restrictions.”

The study was published in the journal Psychiatry Research.

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