Lockdown has hugely impacted women’s mental and physical health, so we asked a doctor how we can recharge.
Hands up who is feeling lethargic, low on energy and just a bit down? I know I have been for weeks now. In a way, the past month or so has been worse than the time we were in strict lockdown, when we had clear rules to follow and guidelines to attain to.
Now, my brain is having to make multiple snap decisions a day that weigh up the organisation, safety and legality of every single action I make, including going to the shop, seeing a friend or booking a trip – things that used to be instant, thoughtless choices. That’s on top of working from home, staring at the same pale cream wall in the same room that I sleep, FaceTime and scoff lunch al desko in.
“It has taken a lot of emotional energy to live in 2020,” agrees Dr Zoe Williams, GP and member of the Strong Women Collective. “Right now, as we are starting to see reality a little more, we are being hit by the realisation that we’re exhausted. That feels different for everyone, but for me it’s feeling like I’m walking through mud or sand, not just physically but mentally too. Everything requires so much more effort.”
New research shows that Dr Williams and I aren’t alone in this feeling. 65% of women have experienced a lack of energy, leading to them feeling tired, unproductive and sometimes depressed during lockdown, according to new research from health tech company Garmin. What makes those stats worse is that there is a huge gender divide in mental and emotional energy expenditure: less than half of men feel the same way.
“The reasons why women are suffering so much more is definitely a combination of factors such as of emotional, hormonal, biological and genetic wellbeing,” says Dr Williams.
One factor is of course the fact that, in general, women have been carrying the domestic and carework burden during the pandemic. “There is a discrepancy there between those who take on the childcare, home schooling, cooking, cleaning, etc, and we know that women will likely soak up more of those additional duties,” says Dr Williams. “Our biology does mean that we are naturally the worrier and the caregiver, but socially we are also more likely to take on the burden of worrying about older relatives and our children and even the wider community around us, and this will impact our mental health.”
It doesn’t just end there. Because we are potentially more likely to be worrying about our family, job or global situation, that’s going to impact on our sleep and activity levels, which can impact on our hormones, which can impact our food choices… the hamster wheel of lethargy never seems to end.
The answer to feeling more energised is not as simple as just getting more sleep, either. In fact, our shut eye is the one area of our lives that has improved during lockdown, with just 10% of people blaming a lack of sleep for poor energy levels, compared to 60% in 2019. “If you think of the things that contribute towards feeling drained, sleep is really just one of many. No amount of sleep can completely overcome stress, a lack of nutrients, no physical activity and a lack of emotional support.”
So what do we do about it? Well, there is clearly a wider conversation to be had about creating a care divide that works to support your own mental and physical wellbeing. But there are also smaller, day-to-day steps that we can take to feel more energised.
The first thing that Dr Williams prescribes is a self-evaluation. That means taking a look at yourself and your habits over the past six months. If you are anything like me, lockdown is a slightly out-of-tune memory that is actually very hard to recall. But this is important to help you learn about where you are giving your energy to and where you should be directing it. “Most of us have probably developed some new habits that are good for us, whether that is cooking more, exercising more, having a more regular bedtime, communicating more with family. Identifying and celebrating those and making sure that we find a way to continue those is crucial.
“But we also need to identify what habits we previously had that made us happy that have now slipped, whether we realised it or not.”
One smart way of being able to turn inwards is to actually look outwards, says Dr Williams. She says that using a fitness tracker can show how certain days of the month or events in your day can drain or recharge your energy.
“I’ve also noticed that cycling to work drains my energy initially, but later in the day I am more awake, whereas getting the tube means I have less energy throughout the day. Another thing that shocked me a lot was that my watch shows I restore my energy overnight. But when I drink alcohol, it doesn’t recharge as much and sometimes even drains during sleep – that’s something I think about before pouring a glass of wine,” she says.
I like this idea of treating this time as a moment of data collection – studying ourselves and our bodies to find out what works for us. After all, it does feel like we are living through a global experiment right now. But the important thing here is using it to learn, rather than obsess about the numbers. Use it to understand the relationship between your lifestyle and energy levels, rather than as something you need to strictly monitor.
Finally, if anything helps you at all, we hope it is the fact that you are not alone. This isn’t a misery loves company thing, but a recognition that we are living through a pandemic! We should not be feeling the best we have ever felt before (on that note, something that I have heard Joe Lycett say on multiple podcasts recently is that “if you are doing your best work right now, you’re a psychopath”, which I remember when I feel like I should be achieving amazing things right now). A bit of compassion has also, weirdly, helped me feel less lethargic. No more wasting precious energy on beating myself up, I guess?
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).