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Infectious Diseases

Updated 29 May 2020

Anxiety, overeating and under-exercising - the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on SA

A recent poll shows that the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown are having serious negative psychological effects on South Africans.

The new coronavirus, which was declared a pandemic in March this year, has arguably become the current biggest, immediate health threat in the world. Lockdowns have been initiated in many countries, making the virus not just a threat to physical well-being, but to millions’ of people’s psychological well-being too. A recent online poll, conducted by Ipsos from 7–10 May 2020, asked South Africans whether they were suffering from the following as a result of Covid-19: 

  • Anxiety
  • Overeating or undereating 
  • Under-exercising or over-exercising
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Decreasing or increasing alcohol use
  • Migraines
  • Increased smoking 

The online poll was part of a larger global poll of more than 16 000 people.

What the results tell us

Out of the above conditions listed and included in the poll, anxiety (31%), overeating (29%), and under-exercising (29%) came out as the top conditions South Africans are suffering from. This is followed by insomnia (25%), depression (20%), and decreasing alcohol use (17%).

Only three in every ten online South Africans (30%) who partook in the study indicated that they do not suffer from any of these conditions. However, it is unclear whether participants of the poll were suffering from these conditions before the pandemic.

Based on the results, women feel that they are suffering more from these conditions than men. Males were also more apprehensive about answering the questions.

Under-exercising, overeating and anxiety during pandemic

With the start of the national lockdown on 27 March came the prohibition of exercise in public, but as President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a downgrade of the lockdown rules earlier this month, and with further easing of rules to level 3 from 1 June, the feeling of exercise deprivation may gradually fade. However, the story is a little different for those experiencing anxiety, overeating, insomnia and depression. But as far as pandemics are concerned, this isn’t new.

A number of short- and long-term associated behavioural health issues have been linked to several pandemics, a HealthDay article notes. And for those that have been infected with the disease, they may be emotionally scarred by their time spent in an intensive care unit (ICU), and are at increased risk of psychological problems, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the article goes on to explain.

"In almost every other pandemic that's been studied, there have been associated behavioural health issues that have been not only short-term but long-term in standing, and this one is no different," Dr David Shulkin, a former secretary of Veterans Affairs and former president and CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City told HealthDay during a LiveStream interview.

Healthcare workers and family members should, therefore, keep an eye on recovering Covid-19 patients for any signs of these psychological issues that may manifest, Shulkin went on to say, adding that these former patients "certainly deserve evaluation by a professional, should those symptoms continue to be present”.

Stress eating

Earlier this month, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) also ran an online survey and found that most South Africans were dealing with anxiety, followed by financial pressure and depression during lockdown.

“Researchers have found there is an inflection point where the frustration and hardship of being cooped up inside suddenly get harder to endure and we're starting to shift into that phase now,” Paula Quinsee, relationship expert, international speaker and author told Drum magazine.

Struggling with emotional stress and overeating as a result is also highly common. In fact, Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW, eating disorder therapist told Very Well Mind: “If you are feeling distressed that you’ve been turning to emotional eating to cope, I want you to know that eating to self-soothe is a valid and wise coping skill at any point, but particularly now!"

Anxiety during pandemic: a global issue

South Africans are not alone in living with anxiety during this uncertain time. Across 16 countries, many people reported feeling the same way, in addition to feeling exercise-deprived.

The overall poll results show that about one-third of the respondents in 10 countries say they are under-exercising due to the pandemic, with this sentiment highest in Japan (38%) and South Korea (37%), followed by Italy (33%), China (31%), Mexico, and Russia (30%). Around a quarter of respondents across 16 countries also reported suffering from anxiety.

This was especially true for those in Brazil (41%), Mexico (35%), Russia, South Africa (32%) and Canada (29%). Younger women aged 34 and younger were also likely to cite experiencing insomnia, anxiety and depression as a result of the outbreak. 

However, for many people across 16 countries, particularly in Germany (53%) and France (52%), followed by Japan (44%), Australia (43%) and the United States (41%), they reported not feeling any different during this crisis. 

In an interview with Health24, South African psychiatrist, Professor Renata Schoeman advised that those who find themselves battling with mental illness, such as anxiety and depression during the lockdown to consider reaching out for professional help.

You can reach SADAG by calling its 24-hour helpline on 0800 456 789. For a suicide emergency, contact 0800 567 567. Alternatively, call Lifeline on 0861 322 322. 

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READ | 'Stress eating' while in lockdown? Here are tips to avoid it

Image: Getty/NurPhoto