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Lockdown mental health: why do we bottle up our emotions when we know it’s bad for us?

According to a new study by Bupa UK, 44% of those who have experienced potential symptoms of poor mental health in lockdown haven’t told anyone.

When it comes to taking care of our mental health, it’s common knowledge that one of the best things we can do is talk. Whether that’s talking to a friend, family member, colleague or mental health professional, opening up about how we’re feeling not only helps to lift some of the weight off of our shoulders, but also makes it easier to seek help going forward.

Except, it’s not always as easy as that. It’s one thing to understand that talking is good for our mental health – and that bottling up our emotions has the opposite effect – but putting that knowledge into action can be incredibly difficult for a whole number of reasons. Which means that, despite knowing it’s likely to have a negative effect in the long run, many people choose to stay quiet.

It’s a problem that has only been made worse during lockdown. According to a new study from Bupa UK, eight out of 10 people have experienced potential symptoms of poor mental health in lockdown, yet almost half (44%) of those people haven’t told anyone. That’s double the rate of people who struggled to speak out in 2019, when only 22% felt the need to bottle up their emotions. 

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The problem? Staying quiet about our mental health doesn’t only make things harder to deal with in the short term – it can make things significantly harder in the long term, too, says Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for mental health at Bupa UK Insurance.

“There’s no getting away from the fact that this has been a really tough period for our mental health,” he says. “High levels of anxiety and depression have been reported while the country has been in lockdown, and as we remain in a period of uncertainty and change, mental health professionals expect these issues to continue. But it’s extremely concerning to see that so many people don’t feel that they can come forward to discuss their symptoms – either with friends or family or with a health professional.”

Vandenabeele continues: “We can’t simply wait and hope these issues will pass. Early diagnosis is so important for improving outcomes, and with the number of services and resources available people shouldn’t suffer in silence or think that nothing can be done.”

Two women on the phone
Lockdown mental health: if you're experiencing symptoms of poor mental health, it's important that you seek help.

It’s clear that seeking help – primarily by speaking to someone about how we’re feeling – is imperative in ensuring we don’t let mental health problems get out of hand. But as we’ve already established, this isn’t news to most people – so why do we continue to bottle things up?

“For many people, talking about our emotions isn’t easy,” explains Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist with Healthspan. “Even though we know it’s helpful to express feelings of sadness, frustration and anxiety, it can be hard to know where to start. 

“This is because communicating emotions in a constructive way is a skill – and like all skills we need someone to teach us how to do it, and we need to be able practice in a psychologically safe place. In families where expressions of feelings were either ignored or, perhaps worse, were disparaged, we very quickly learn to bottle up our feelings.”

Arroll points out that, if we’re taught not to make a fuss out of things when we’re younger, we learn to keep our innermost thoughts and feelings to ourselves in order to receive love and approval – a pattern which becomes learned behaviour as we grow up.

“In my practice I often see clients who say ‘I’m not an anxious person so I don’t know why I’m struggling’, which is another key component to this,” Arroll points out. “When we speak about mental health it is often in terms of ‘I am/ am not depressed/anxious’, which taps into our sense of identity. It’s much more helpful to instead discuss feelings as states, not traits, in the sense that they are transient and impermanent – e.g “I am feeling depressed/ anxious right now” – rather than an innate characteristic.”

For Arroll, being aware of and understanding these obstacles is an important step in finding it easier to talk about how we’re feeling, whether that’s with a friend, family member or GP.

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And, as Vandenabeele adds: “If you or a loved one are struggling with your mental health, it’s important to seek medical help at the right time. People should not be waiting nearly three months to come forward. 

“It can be hard to distinguish between what’s ‘normal’ for you and what may be a symptom of a more significant mental health issue, and I often recommend that people try to think about whether their symptoms have been affecting them for two weeks or more, and if so, to seek help.”

To learn more about seeking mental health support during the coronavirus pandemic, including what services are available, you can check out our guide.

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