Lockdown is over and we are able to go more or less where we please again, as long as we act responsibly and keep taking those well-known precautions. But what have all these months of restrictions, isolation, time spent indoors and social distancing done to our bodies and minds? We take a look at how lockdown has changed us, physically and mentally – and what to do about it.
Your sleeping pattern has probably gone haywire during lockdown. Regular poor sleep not only makes you grumpy and unable to function properly but also puts you at risk of serious medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity – all of which were already big problems in the UAE long before Covid-19.
Stress makes the brain swim in cortisol, a hormone linked to brain function. Muscles tighten up and we have trouble falling asleep and wake up frequently during the night. Good, restful sleep is when our bodies are at work repairing injuries and recovering from illness. According to British sleep expert James Wilson (known as the Sleep Geek): “Sleep also helps to clean the brain of neurotoxins that can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Sleep is the foundation that the rest of our health is built on.”
How to fix: soaking in a warm bath for at least 20 minutes will relax tired, stressed and anxious muscles, especially if you pour some Epsom salts into the bath water.
For calming yourself before bedtime, many health practitioners recommend taking magnesium.
It may come as a surprise, but gut health and sleep are connected. This is because the gut produces a lot of the body’s supply of serotonin, the hormone that affects mood and sleep. Psychological factors such as stress and anxiety affect the gut too – for example, causing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) to flare up.
Bad eating habits either acquired or enforced during lockdown will not have helped your gastrointenstinal system at all.
How to fix: Eat regularly to keep your digestion and bowel activity moving. Keep an eye on your oral health, too, as it can be a good warning sign of more serious problems within, such as inflammation of the bowel or intestines. Yoga is helpful for IBS, as it stimulates the gut muscles as well as helping with stress management.
All those Zoom calls and too much time spent glued to a screen or phone has been hard on your eyes. The good news is that watching too much television or being close to a computer screen will probably give you a headache or make your eyes feel tired, but it won’t cause any permanent damage.
How to fix: Limit virtual meetings to 40 minutes. Take a little break halfway through and look away from the screen for 20 seconds, focusing on something more than five meters away.
Your furniture at home is not like the chairs and desks at your office. You are also probably sitting for longer, as there’s no need to walk over to a colleague or leave your desk to go get some lunch. Result? A spine out of alignment for hours of the day, causing lower back and neck pain.
How to fix: have a little walk around every hour and drink some water. Even better, do a few simple stretches or massage your quads and hamstrings with a foam roller. Set a reminder on your phone.
This is linked to circulation. Some people have been less active during lockdown so problems like varicose veins – which are very common anyway – have increased, with people experiencing swollen ankles, red or brown staining on the skin around the ankles and leg ulcers.
More seriously, patients who are already ill or dehydrated and less mobile than usual can get deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is clotting in the deep veins of the legs. In a minority of cases, DVT is also linked to underlying cancers which may have gone undiagnosed because Covid-19 made it harder to see a doctor.
How to fix: walk as much as possible and keep hydrated. For varicose veins, keep your leg elevated when resting. Most importantly – get a proper diagnosis and treatment.
You haven’t been wearing make-up and you’ve been exposed to much less pollution. So why during lockdown did your skin break out in spots and dry patches and become generally more sensitive?
It’s the usual suspects – stress and anxiety, causing the body to produce more cortisol which leads to more inflammation and oiliness. You probably were bingeing on comfort foods and not eating as much fresh fruit and veg, too.
How to fix: again, cut down the stress. Go for a walk every day. Forget trying out “miracle” creams, potions or treatments; instead, keep your skincare regime simple with twice daily cleansing and moisturizing and aim to drink two liters of water a day.
We have all felt bored, listless, depressed, irritated and anxious at some point during lockdown and those feelings will not necessarily go away now that we are able to go out more. According to some studies conducted during other outbreaks, they can last up to three years. Mental stress also shows itself in physical ways; it can increase the risk of a stroke or heart attack and make the immune system less effective.
Humans are social beings – not only because we like to be, but because we need to be. Some studies show that loneliness can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We also need rhythm in our lives, which comes from going to work or school, to the gym and to social events. Not moving around physically can have a detrimental effect on your mind as well as causing your muscles to atrophy. Like all clichés, “use it or lose it” is true. A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that just two weeks of inactivity can reverse the benefits accrued to your heart and muscle mass by exercise.
How to fix: simple breathing exercises (for example, inhale for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four) are helpful. Take exercise. It doesn’t matter what kind – the important thing is to keep moving. In the longer term, get support from family, friends or outside professionals.
The human immune system is, frankly, amazing. Normal, everyday life means we are exposed to germs and viruses all the time, yet unless you suffer from a condition that permanently compromises your immune system, it continues to adapt and grow stronger.
So while it has been advisable to slather ourselves in sanitizer, it’s worth remembering that at the same time, we might have weakened the overall efficiency of our immune system. You might find you’re getting more colds or your allergies are more sensitive than before.
How to fix: obesity is bad for general health and that includes the immune system so lose some weight. Cut down on sugar, by a lot. Avoid foods that aggravate inflammation, such as corn, canola and soy oils.
Finally, don’t be too afraid of getting a little dirty. Coming into contact with small doses of bacteria, microbes and germs trains the immune system in how to overcome them. After all, that’s how vaccines work, isn’t it?
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.