One month in, this study provides the first glimpse of the lockdown’s health effects

Solitary confinement used to just be a punishment for inmates who misbehaved, but now it’s a fact of life for billions of people all over the world. It’s almost inconceivable, but half of the planet’s population has been told to stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a necessary measure, but that doesn’t make it fun or enjoyable.

Turning our attention locally, the United States is on the precipice of enduring roughly one month of lockdown. It was mid-March when the reality of this pandemic set in all over the country, and while individual states have fluctuated a bit in terms of announcing stay-at-home orders, it’s fairly safe to say the vast majority of Americans will have been self-isolating at home for just about a month this week.

While the strategy of self-isolation is our best option to beat this virus right now, there’s no denying that it’s weighing heavily on all of us. Even the introverts among us must be fiending for an awkward social interaction at this point. Now, a new study that focused on Chinese adults in lockdown is offering a glimpse of how Americans are likely feeling after one month of self-isolation.

The study

Researchers examined 369 Chinese adults spread across 64 cities that had already been living under one month of mandatory lockdown as of February. They discovered that the more a location was impacted by COVID-19, and the stricter the local self-quarantine measures, the more adults reported feeling depressed, distressed, dissatisfied with their life, and adverse health consequences both physically and mentally.

These results probably aren’t all that shocking to read, but they still provide valuable research-backed data on the far-reaching effects of lockdown. This is yet another example illustrating that this pandemic has changed all of our lives. Even for those among us lucky enough to avoid ever developing COVID-19 symptoms, the psychological and physical repercussions of this isolation period will remain long after the pandemic is brought under control.

This study was conducted by the University of Sydney, the University of Adelaide, and Tongji University.

“As many parts of the world are only just beginning to go into lockdown, we examined the impact of the one-month long lockdown on people’s health, distress and life satisfaction,” comments study leader Dr. Stephen Zhang of the University of Adelaide in a press release. “The study offers somewhat of a ‘crystal ball’ into the mental health of Australian residents once they have been in the lockdown for one month.”

Additionally, the study’s authors noted that individuals who had to stop working completely, as well as those with pre-existing health conditions, were most at risk of suffering mental and physical setbacks during isolation.

“We weren’t surprised that adults who stopped working reported worse mental and physical health conditions as well as distress. Work can provide people with a sense of purpose and routine, which is particularly important during this global pandemic,” explains Professor Andreas Rauch from the University of Sydney, a study co-author.

For people with pre-existing medical issues, quarantine measures mean they don’t have access to the medical care or physical therapy they need. The worsening of current, or development of new, physical issues is unavoidable. Not to mention the psychological stress individuals with compromised immune systems or medical histories involving lung problems must be feeling knowing that they’re at a higher risk than others.

In fact, in Chinese areas most affected by COVID-19, only adults with a chronic health problem reported lower life satisfaction specifically. That finding is a testament to just how disruptive lockdown can be for people who need medical support that’s unrelated to the coronavirus. There are millions of cancer patients all over the world who aren’t getting the treatments they desperately need right now, and that’s just one example.

One of the study’s more surprising conclusions pertained to exercise. Logic would dictate that the more a person exercises these days the better they’ll feel. Puzzlingly, it was determined that adults exercising over two and a half hours each day reported lower life satisfaction than people working out for an hour and a half or less daily.

“We were really surprised by the findings around exercising hours because it appears to be counter-intuitive,” Dr. Zhang says. “It’s possible adults who exercised less could better justify or rationalize their inactive lifestyles in more severely affected cities. More research is needed but these early findings suggest we need to pay attention to more physically active individuals, who might be more frustrated by the restrictions.”

It would certainly be nice if all this research could provide a surefire way to avoid the lockdown blues, but this is a situation with no easy answer. Ultimately, it’s up to each person individually to figure out what works for them in terms of staying positive, fit, and upbeat during this unprecedented disruption in all of our lives. It’s always a good idea, however, to stay in touch with loved ones. We can’t be together physically, but we’re still all in this together.

The full study can be found here, published in Psychiatry Research.