Levels of anxiety among Britons appear to be reducing compared to the start of lockdown, new figures show.
At the beginning of lockdown, there was a “marked” increase of anxiety, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
Between March 20-30, almost half (49.6%) of people reported high anxiety. This reduced to 37% between April 30 and May 10.
But average anxiety scores are still higher compared with last year, and it has been estimated that 19 million adults in Britain are suffering high levels of anxiety.
The ONS report on anxiety and coronavirus states: “The effect seen on average anxiety ratings throughout the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic shows a similar pattern to the theory of ‘hedonic adaptation’.
“When a shock event occurs, such as the impact of the coronavirus, wellbeing is temporarily impacted but people then quickly adapt so that well-being partially bounces back; though not necessarily to the same level as it was before the shock.
“During lockdown, new measures have been put into place, which may have also helped to alleviate high levels of anxiety.”
The report illustrates that various groups appear to be more vulnerable to anxiety during lockdown.
People who are lonely are significantly more likely to be anxious – people who “often or always” felt lonely were almost five times more likely to report high anxiety than those who “never” feel lonely.
People aged 75 and older were twice as likely as young adults – aged 16 to 24 – to report high levels of anxiety.
Around one in five of those who reported high levels of anxiety during lockdown said that their work had been affected because they were finding working from home difficult, the ONS said.
And almost two in five (39%) of people who are married or in a civil partnership have reported high levels of anxiety during lockdown – up from 19% in the last quarter of 2019.
The ONS suggested that those who are married or in a civil partnership are more likely to be balancing homeschooling alongside work commitments.
People taking part in the ONS’ Opinions and Lifestyle Survey are asked: “On a scale where 0 is not at all anxious and 10 is completely anxious, overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?”
Scores from six to 10 indicate high levels of anxiety.
The average rating across all adults at the end of last year was 2.97. But at the end of March this rose to 5.18.
The average rating is now 4.04.
Between April 3 and May 10, women had higher anxiety scores than men – average anxiety scores for women were 4.7 out of 10 compared with 3.9 out of 10 for men.
People who were disabled were also more likely to report a higher anxiety score, as were people who reported that they do not feel “safe” in their own home.
One particularly striking finding is that 39% of people who are married or in a civil partnership reported high levels of anxiety
ONS statistician Dawn Snape said: “There is understandable concern about the impact of the pandemic on people’s wellbeing. Our figures show that the equivalent of 19 million adults in Great Britain report high levels of anxiety.
“One particularly striking finding is that 39% of people who are married or in a civil partnership reported high levels of anxiety. This compares with 19% pre-pandemic. It may in part be because of the challenges of homeschooling alongside work and other responsibilities.
“Another marked change is in those aged 65 years or older. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic we consistently saw lower anxiety ratings in those aged 65 years and older, but now we are seeing the highest levels of anxiety amongst this group in lockdown.”
According to the NHS’s One You website, anxiety is a feeling of unease, like a worry or fear.
This can cause a person’s heart to race, make them sweaty, shaky or short of breath. It can also cause changes in behaviour.
Anxiety can be mild or severe and everyone feels anxious from time to time.
But for some it can become problematic, and harmless situations can be blown out of proportion.
Claire Murdoch, mental health director for the NHS said: “We know that many people’s lives will have been disrupted in these uncertain times and this can lead to depression or other challenges, so while it’s encouraging that anxiety levels are reducing, there are common sense, simple steps which can ease symptoms, including talking to friends and loved ones, undertaking regular exercise, keeping a healthy and balanced diet and accessing self-help websites such as Every Mind Matters.
“But if your symptoms persist, the NHS has been and will continue to be there for you as we take on this pandemic, whether that is through video consultations and online support, our newly launched mental health crisis hotline, or through face-to-face appointments, so you can get the help and support you need.”
Sir Simon Wessely, regius professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, said: “It’s no surprise that people have become more anxious during the pandemic, but the size of the increase is very troubling.
“The greatest increase is in those who are married/in partnerships, which is the opposite of what we normally see.
“This may reflect issues around either home schooling, or home working, or both.
“Another issue across the board is loneliness – which is not just about living alone, but that our need for rewarding social contact is not being met.
“This is the wicked nature of a pandemic – it creates intense anxiety, but the measures that we need to control it, which centre on suppressing our ability to interact socially, make it more difficult to manage that anxiety.
“Finally, if as seems likely we are going to have to learn to live with this virus for some time to come, even with a vaccine, high levels of fear will make it more difficult for us to accept the compromises and trade-offs necessary for our collective future.
“Government may have to lead and not simply follow.”
The figures come as the Department of Health and Social Care announced that frontline staff and volunteers across England can now access a psychological first aid training course.
The course will enable staff to provide psychological support to people affected by coronavirus.