Continued lockdowns across three of our major States has forced half our population to adapt and adjust to a new normal. These unusual circumstances, that many Aussies must reconcile for the next few weeks (and potentially months), can take its toll on our physical and mental health.
A doctor from a leading telehealth service has identified the common health symptoms Aussies may be experiencing in lockdown and how to manage them effectively.
Dr Andrew Thompson is a registered doctor at InstantScripts, a leading online service providing alternative primary healthcare options to those who have difficulty accessing a doctor due to cost, location or residency status.
He says: “The lockdowns have thrust Aussies into an abnormal environment. Many of us are juggling high-pressure jobs with parenting and homeschooling and, as restrictions continue to tighten, are unable to call on the helping hands of family, friends or professionals. Some of us are in lockdown in apartments, which often lack space and natural light. Many single households have to grapple with loneliness.
“These factors are not conducive to a healthy lifestyle and many would find it challenging to cope with. We might see a manifestation of physical and mental health symptoms that might not appear under normal circumstances. It’s important not to be alarmed by this. Many symptoms are common, temporary and can often be addressed through lifestyle adjustments.”
In fact, a survey from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, conducted when cases were rising in Victoria, NSW and Queensland in June this year, found that a fifth of Aussies were experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress during this period. The majority of respondents also reported feeling nervous, fatigued, hopeless, restless and depressed.
Andrew adds: “This shows that even between lockdown periods and amid tougher restrictions, mental health symptoms are commonly experienced by a vast number of Aussies. What does concern me is that just a small portion of those surveyed sought a medical professional. We are likely to experience the effects of this pandemic for the foreseeable future, so it is really important to address any symptoms head-on, to prevent more sinister issues from emerging, which are often more difficult to resolve.”
Below, Andrew gives his advice for managing common symptoms Aussies may experience during lockdown.
Lockdown can be a high stress environment, whether you’re working from home or have lost your job – and this stress could cause headaches. When at home, you are also more likely to increase your screen use and, without an ergonomic remote working set-up, neck and shoulder pain can progress to headaches.
The good news is that headaches can often be managed by making simple lifestyle changes. Taking a break from the screen and getting outside for fresh air, exercise and sunlight, when possible, can help ease the tension. It is important to look after yourself and ensure you are getting enough sleep and staying hydrated.
- Chronic tiredness or insomnia
If you have started experiencing fatigue or insomnia during lockdown, it could be lifestyle related. Mental strain, often brought on by stress, can also cause chronic tiredness or insomnia. Mental strain can lead to exhaustion: as your heart rate increases, you become more alert while trying to adapt to a new normal, eventually reducing energy over the course of the day.
Often, these symptoms can be managed by focusing on sleep hygiene, which includes maintaining regular sleep and wake times, aiming for eight hours of sleep each night, limiting screen time or reading a book before bed, or trying medications, such as melatonin, to help normalise sleep patterns. At InstantScripts, we recently launched a test called ‘Why Am I Tired?’ which aims to get to the root cause of sleep problems. It involves a blood test to check iron levels, electrolytes, fasting glucose, vitamin B12 and kidney function, followed by a telehealth consultation with a doctor to discuss and address any deficiencies.
- Anxiety or depression
If you have been experiencing anxiety or depression, including panic attacks, only in this lockdown environment, it is likely related to a change in your environment, routine or circumstances. This is also known as an adjustment disorder, whereby a person who does not have a mental health disorder suddenly develops symptoms associated with one.
The good news is that it is likely temporary and manageable with help. In some cases, you may require short-term medication – and talking therapies can be an effective management tool. Talking to a doctor can provide the reassurance and relief that you may need, particularly when it comes to anxiety. While doctors are generally not trained psychologists, talking to a medical professional and getting things off your chest can be helpful. It is also important to take breaks when you are feeling overwhelmed. Taking slow, deep breaths can also help calm and relax you.
- Weight gain
Weight gain is a common symptom of lockdown and, in most cases, shouldn’t be a cause for concern, nor should you feel guilty about it. In fact, a third of Aussies have gained weight during the pandemic. During lockdown, we have 24-hour access to our fridges and pantries, snacking and turning to food as a comfort measure. We are also naturally less active. However, if you have gained more than 5kg over a short period, I recommend some lifestyle changes.
It is important to stay active, and while you may feel less motivated during this time I encourage you to push yourself to exercise, even if it’s a walk around the block. Try and be stricter with your diet as well. Your routine may be out of balance so it is important to maintain routines you had pre-lockdown. If you used to limit your snacking or if you meal prepped for the week, try to bring this back.
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation
If you are contemplating self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, it is important to know that there is always a medical professional at the end of the phone who can help. I strongly encourage you to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Speaking to a GP is a good first step. A doctor will encourage you to have a support network set up, such as family or friends, that you can call upon them when you feel you are not coping. They may also start medical therapies and, in particularly concerning cases, organise a welfare check.
During lockdown, you can access a doctor through telehealth services, such as InstantScripts, which offer affordable, flat-rate consults. Your GP may also refer you to a specialised medical professional, such as a psychologist, who can provide the advice and tools you need.
Fortunately, there are also services and support lines that are available 24/7, such as Lifeline Australia (13 11 14), that are always ready to provide help.