The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every corner of the world, causing widespread illness and death. The medical community simultaneously attempts to learn about this new virus, its treatment and how best to prevent it from spreading. In addition, the world is grappling with the mental, emotional, and physical impacts of stress in our society. Anxiety has increased by an estimated 35%, and depression by up to 50%. These manifestations of stress lead to poor sleep, which has a range of effects on physical health, including impairing immunity, promoting weight gain, disrupting blood sugar control, and increasing pain levels, all of which fuel the cycle of stress.
Who Has Been Most Impacted and How?
Researchers are studying the stress-related effects of the pandemic in real-time, and their reports provide a valuable glimpse into how groups are affected differently by the mental and emotional stresses, who is most affected, and how. The emerging picture shows a mix of resilience and vulnerability. It provides clues as to how we, as individuals, can improve our skills for coping with this new challenge as we work through the following stages of the pandemic.
Each year starting in 2011, the United Nations publishes the World Happiness Report. The report recognizes these six main factors as being foundational for supporting and promoting well-being and happiness: income, health status, having a person you can rely on, freedom, generosity, and trust. Predictably, the report for 2021 reflects the upheaval caused by the pandemic. However, the 2021 report concludes that the effects of COVID-19 on mental and emotional health confirm the importance of these same six contributing factors.
In the UK, for example, we have experienced a 47% increase in mental health problems, with groups that already rank highest for mental health problems, i.e. women, young people, and poor people, being most impacted. Loneliness, in particular, is one of the mental health issues that have been on the rise, having increased by more than 25% over pre-pandemic levels, affecting younger people, those who live alone, and those with chronic health conditions.
More so than men, women, who tend to be caregivers for elderly or ill family members, have been disproportionately burdened by caregiver stress than before the pandemic. An additional source of stress for women is that they are more likely to lose jobs due to the pandemic than are men.
Likewise, those living with chronic disease already suffer higher levels of anxiety and depression. The risk of complications from COVID-19 is higher for those with some forms of chronic illness, which adds to their levels of mental and emotional stress.
Additionally, systemic racism has resulted in greater rates of infection, less access to healthcare and poorer outcomes for people of colour.
Tragically, domestic violence has increased during the pandemic, inflicting increased mental, emotional, and physical trauma due to lockdown measures.
Among the World Happiness Report’s six happiness factors, the key factor for maintaining happiness in the COVID-19 era seems to be trust, specifically a high level of trust in public institutions. Countries where the trust level is high, have had more success at lowering community transmission and lower rates of COVID-19 deaths. Those countries also tended to implement greater control measures and, as a result, preserved both their economies and their health. In comparison, countries that implemented fewer control measures continue to grapple with high infection and death rates and the continued need for greater social restrictions.
Where else can we find evidence of resilience in the face of the pandemic? The World Happiness Report found that those who express characteristics they describe as gratitude and grit have fared the best. Those with strong connections to others, particularly with established digital connections, who have been able to replace in-person meetings with Zoom calls have coped better through the stress and upheaval of prolonged social separation. With freedom of travel curtailed, many have turned to rediscover their neighbourhood as a creative outlet.
Weathering the COVID-19 pandemic is both a group and individual effort. Using the World Happiness Report’s six pillars of well-being, we can each take action to cultivate those factors in our own lives to reach out and help those in greatest need.
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To Your Health and Wellness,