Coping with stress in a pandemic

How do you manage stress in the midst of a pandemic? Fiona Evans looks at what people have been doing across the UK

Walking was found to be most people's favourite coping strategy (Photo: Kimberley Ramblers)

Life was pretty stressful for many people before coronavirus swept into our everyday lives.

But there is no doubt that the pandemic has taken it to a new level - from the initial challenges of lockdown through to navigating a daily map of shifting uncertainty.

Whether linked to health, education or employment, stress is there for just about everyone in varying and fluctuating degrees.

It is little surprise then that according to new research, 82 per cent of the UK adults surveyed said they have experienced stress because of the pandemic.

Yet we continue to wake, to work, to play. So how have people been keeping the demons at bay?

For many, according to the research by the Mental Health Foundation and collaborating universities, it has been as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.

Walking outside, visiting green spaces such as parks and contacting family and friends are considered by UK adults as the most helpful ways to cope with stress about the pandemic, researchers found.

Going out for a walk is most people’s favourite coping strategy, with 59 per cent who have felt stressed saying they found it helpful.

Being able to visit parks and other green spaces is the second most popular coping mechanism, mentioned as helpful by half of those who have experienced stress.

Keeping in contact with family members (49 per cent) and friends (47 per cent) were named as the next most helpful ways of managing, among those who have felt stressed about the pandemic.

The findings highlight factors that can help prevent mental health problems.

“The good news here is that at a very difficult time for many of us, millions of people across the UK are using effective ways to improve their well-being,” said Dr Antonis Kousoulis, the Foundation’s director for England and Wales.

“Going out for a walk, visiting a park and being in contact with family and friends are great ways for us all to protect our mental health and prevent problems. Wider research evidence, as well as our latest survey findings, makes this very clear.”

The new research is part of the Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic study by the Mental Health Foundation, in partnership with the universities of Cambridge, Swansea, Strathclyde, Queen’s Belfast and De Montfort.

The latest findings are from a YouGov survey carried out in August, among a nationally representative sample of 4,251 UK adults. It asked participants what had helped them cope during the previous two weeks.

Dr Kousoulis said: “Our new findings matter for policy, which can make it easier or harder for people to cope at a time that is stressful for millions of us.

“At a time of local restrictions, it’s more important than ever that local authorities invest in improving our neighbourhoods and leisure areas, to create safe, green spaces for outdoor activities.

“That is why we are asking the UK Government to take the lead by publishing a cross-government plan to promote people’s mental health and well-being.”

The survey also found that 39 per cent of people who had experienced stress because of the pandemic said maintaining a healthy lifestyle, such as sleeping well and eating healthily, had helped them cope.

And 38 per cent said that doing a hobby was helpful.

“There’s a growing body of strong research evidence about the determinants of our health and well-being,” said Professor Tine Van Bortel, from the University of Cambridge and De Montfort University Leicester.

“That is replicated by our findings. Access to nature and safe green spaces, positive social contacts, healthy lifestyles and meaningful activities are all crucial, for us to function well.

“There is also strong international evidence that there is no trade-off between public health and the economy – quite the opposite: healthy, happy people make for stronger communities and thriving economies.”

Researchers also found that some people are turning to potentially harmful ways of coping, including increased alcohol consumption, substance misuse, and over-eating, placing their mental and physical health at greater risk.

The study shows that 19 per cent of adults who had experienced stress related to the pandemic said they had drunk more alcohol in August in order to cope with that stress.

The Mental Health Foundation’s suggestions for coping with the stress of the pandemic include:

ExercisingSpending time in natureMaintaining contact with friends and familyEating healthilyBeing aware of smoking and drinkingTaking time to relaxBeing mindfulGetting restful sleepAvoiding negative thinkingDoing an enjoyable hobby