• Uri Bram

Anxiety in the time of COVID

As you might imagine, anxiety and unhappiness have spiked sharply during lockdown. Good data is hard to come by, so we were very impressed to discover that the UK Office of National Statistics’ long-run study of well-being has now started doing almost-weekly surveys specifically during the pandemic, giving us all a remarkable picture of anxiety and unhappiness during lockdown. The picture, unfortunately is not good:

For the last nine years, anxiety has been steadily if slowly declining on this survey: on average, throughout the period, respondents rated themselves an average of 3 on a simple 0-10 scale for “how anxious are you?”, and 20% of respondents reported high anxiety (that is, 6 or more on the 0-10 scale). Suddenly, following the UK national stay at home orders, that spiked to 50% of respondents reporting high anxiety, and an overall average response of 5.

Unfortunately, the data tells a similar story regarding happiness and well-being. The survey asks three interesting questions:

  • “Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?”

  • “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?”

  • “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?”

Again, all three measures have been fairly stable over the last nine years, with a mild positive trend especially in the first half of the 2010s. Immediately following the national Stay At Home orders, the average response for each question declined sharply, with “how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” dropping half a point on average and “how happy did you feel yesterday?” dropping a whole point.

At Spark Wave, our own data backs up this observation. In our ongoing study of coronavirus, implemented using our rapid study platform Positly.com on 308 US residents, 59% of participants reported feeling more anxious on a typical day now than they did two months ago.

A similar, though smaller, effect holds for depression: 36% of participants reported feeling more depressed on a typical day now than they did two months ago.

Of course, an important question will be how these trends develop in the weeks and months ahead: whether anxiety and depression will ease as we all get used to life in lockdown, or increase as we spend more and more time away from life as normal. We’ll be studying the situation closely, and add more interesting results as they come in.

Update: another study in the UK came out on April 26th, 2020, designed to "to assess the levels of anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress in the population during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic" (during the period of March 23rd to March 28th). Based on their cutoff criteria, they found that 22.1% of people in the UK now have depression, and 21.6% have anxiety. They attempt to compare these numbers to prior studies to measure changes, but the depression and anxiety scales and corresponding cutoff criteria used in the prior studies differ from the current one, making comparisons hard to interpret. The study also found that "female gender, the presence of children in the household and estimates of personal risks of infection were predictive of COVID-related anxiety."

If you've been experiencing mental health challenges during this difficult time, you may want to check out UpLift for depression (iPhone app), or Mind Ease for anxiety (for iPhone and Android), apps made by our sister orgs.

With thanks to Dave Wilson for guidance and suggestions.

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