Therapists report huge rise in cases of anxiety as England ends Covid rules

Many people remain ‘in a perpetual state of threat’ despite the success of the UK’s vaccination rollout

The decision to lift restrictions in England on 19 July is already leading to a rise in anxiety with therapists finding people are reporting fears over a loss of control with the removal of the “comfort zone” of measures designed to protect them.

One in five people report suffering from what mental health experts have called Covid-19 anxiety syndrome, with 40% avoiding touching things in public spaces and 23% shunning public places because of fear of the virus, research has suggested.

The survey, led by London South Bank University, was released as the country prepares for many of the numerous Covid rules to be revoked on 19 July.

Research from a number of mental health charities corroborates high levels of anxiety. Mind has found that 55% of adults and young people were concerned about seeing and being near others once restrictions are fully relaxed, with 46% of those already vaccinated saying they are still worried they will catch coronavirus.

Since the roadmap to lift restrictions in England was announced, Lucy Shepherd, director of Therapy Centre Services, says the themes of counselling sessions have changed, with clients around the UK expressing “deep concern about the speed that the restrictions are being lifted and how they no longer have control over their own decisions”. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own timetables for an end to restrictions.)

Shepherd expects the levels of anxiety to get worse: “We would expect the anxiety of people to increase as not only will they be losing control but others such as employers will take back control over their choices.”

“There’s an underlying unease in general,” says Lee Chambers, a psychologist and expert in workplace wellbeing. “A lot of people unfortunately know someone who’s been seriously ill or passed away due to Covid; it’s touched us all in a way over this past 18 months … it’s not the easiest thing for people to detach from that.”

Worries around lifting restrictions come against a backdrop of increasing levels of mental distress. According to Mind, one in four adults experienced it for the first time during the pandemic, with NHS figures showing that the number of people in contact with mental health services is the highest since the first lockdown.

For many, such as those who are unvaccinated or vulnerable because of underlying health conditions, it could be argued that a high level of anxiety is entirely rational. “For a lot of people anxiety is functioning as it should, as a survival mechanism,” says Chambers.

But Professor Marcantonio Spada, who led the South Bank University research, believes that many have adopted unhelpful coping strategies that will prove hard to shake even, as he puts it, as “we are approaching a situation that is clearly different from before … the hospitals are not full, a very large proportion of the British population has been vaccinated”.

People’s level of anxiety, he says, is often not affected by their individual risk factors, as his research found that vaccination status was not associated with a lower presence of the syndrome.

“Even if you say to people you are double vaccinated, you are very young … for a number of people it will be very difficult to say, ‘I’ll ditch the mask, or go and meet new people, or go to the theatre’,” he says. A professor of addictive behaviours, he believes that the problem with the habits many developed, such as constantly checking the news, avoiding social situations is that people enter “a perpetual state of threat. We are exhausted”.

Individuals need to recalibrate their behaviours “gradually, in a tailor-made way”, he says. Regardless of your level of risk or anxiety, Chambers advises “treating yourself with kindness, being clear on boundaries and respecting other people – we all need to take it at our own pace”.

CASE STUDY: Claire, 41, convenience store manager from Essex

“I crack on, but talking on behalf of my colleagues, they’re anxious. We work in convenience stores so it’s really hard to social distance and we can’t force people to wear masks.

“All of a sudden there’s this date [19 July] but cases are rising – it isn’t just all magically going to go on that date. You can ask people to be sensible but as we know, people couldn’t do it when they had to do it, let alone when it’s a choice.

“I think everyone is wondering what the hell is going on. Of course we want normality back but I just wish that in some environments there’d be more protection.

“We’ll carry on keeping ourselves and our customers as safe as we possibly can. But to get your head around all of a sudden not having to do this and that, it’s very bizarre.”

Contributor

Ellie Violet Bramley

The GuardianTramp

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