Managing lockdown stress

This article was last updated on 3 June 2020.

Lockdown came abruptly and put much of our lives on hold. Even the talk of an end to lockdown has lots of uncertainty to it. For many young people, it’s been a difficult experience from the start, triggered by the loss of usual routines and plans, direct contact with groups of friends, and perhaps more time spent at home than you would like. Or maybe you’ve got used to the ‘ups and downs’ of lockdown – a mix of good days (or moments), as well as bad days.

However lockdown is affecting you, it’s likely that at times you have felt stressed. And stress is tough. It can confuse us when normally we think clearly and it can stop us doing the things we want to do. If this is happening to you, now’s the time to get on top of your stress before it gets on top of you.

1. What does stress feel like?

Stress can make you feel withdrawn, unmotivated, irritable and tearful. At its more intense, it can make you feel distressed and angry. Stress can also affect you physically, giving you a headache, upset stomach and low energy. It can affect your sleep and make you eat more, or less, than usual. It can lead to bad decisions because you’re less careful and rational, so can result in behaviour which brings you into conflict with others or perhaps puts you in danger.

If you are a teenager, the chances are that you are already being affected by what happens to the brain during adolescence – which is that it is developing fast (more than at any other time of your life, except for up to the age of three!). This is worth remembering during lockdown, because some of the pressures will be really felt by you. For example, it’s completely normal during adolescence to experience mood swings or to feel a pull to live more in the moment. Lockdown may feel like it’s got you trapped.

2. When does it get worse for you?

Stress is a normal response to threatening, overwhelming situations. Our bodies become flooded with stress hormones to help us get away from the threat – but of course, under lockdown, that’s exactly what we can’t do. So, when the time is right, stop and think about the stress you are experiencing. What brings it on, or makes it worse? By recognising the signs, you will build the ability to see it coming and do your best to avoid (or reduce) it.

Some people find that keeping a ‘stress diary’ helps. Write down the changes you notice in your mind or body that alert you to being stressed. When you look at your diary, do you notice a pattern? Is stress more likely to turn up at the same time each day? At that time, were you tired or hungry? Is it affected by what you have been doing, who you’ve been with, or what was said? Did you have enough exercise, water, food and sleep that day? Caffeine, alcohol or too much sleep can also make stress worse. All of these things are vital when managing stress, including the stress of lockdown.

3. What can you do about it?

Try to turn the situation around in your mind. When you feel stressed, remind yourself of the things you normally do which help you feel calm and relaxed. Often, this happens when we get really absorbed in something. So, what’s your thing? It might be sport, listening to music, watching a good film, chatting with friends. Think of these as your ‘escape routes’. Make a note of them in your diary. Remind yourself what calm feels like, and how you can get there. Use the approaches which work for you, but also be open to trying something new – like meditation, which you can find out about online. If you know that stress can make you feel frustrated or angry, work out ways of dealing with it that don’t create conflict with others. Physical exercise, singing/dancing, or even hitting a punch bag or pillow, these are all methods which work for others.

Talking with people who will listen to you, without you feeling judged, can also really help. But family relationships can feel quite intense in lockdown. There will be times when you fall out with those at home. Perhaps you would normally step back and spend more time with friends, but now you can’t. Rather than repeating a common argument with parents, suggest ways to help everyone feel heard and reduce the stress. Become better at negotiating, which will serve you well in the future too.

4. When to worry?

Accepting that stress is an unfortunate consequence of lockdown may be a useful way of learning to deal with it, rather than fighting it. But if the symptoms of stress start to overwhelm you, or feel out of control, do seek support. Reach out to those you trust, from within your family, amongst your close friends, and perhaps through contact you are able to have with your school. Talk about how you’re feeling, and perhaps write it down if it feels difficult to say. Explain what you’ve noticed about the times when the stress is at its worst and what might help. Having someone who will listen and understand what you’re going through can make an enormous difference.

Also, watch out for any warning signs – things which might worry you about yourself. For example, if you are someone who is usually chatty and in touch with friends, but you can feel yourself withdrawing because of how you’re feeling. Those who care about you may even have noticed, but not know what to do. Talk to them. With their support, come up with a plan which helps you to keep on top of your feelings at this time.

Do what you can to keep your stress under control. Lockdown won’t last forever. The day will come when it becomes something we all look back on – and the stress of it becomes a thing of the past too.

By Peter Fuggle, Director of Clinical Services at the Anna Freud Centre and Yvonne Millar MBE, Clinical Psychologist

For more advice on looking after your mental health during this time, you can visit YoungMinds, Mind or The Anna Freud Centre.

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