This week it became official: the UK economy is now in recession, following two consecutive quarters of decline caused by the coronavirus lockdown. A 20.4 percent contraction between April and June compared with the first three months of the year makes this the country’s biggest slump on record. It is, said Chancellor Rishi Sunak, with a certain amount of understatement, "a very difficult and uncertain time".
Unfortunately there are some near-certainties when recession hits, and one is that it will take its toll on our mental and physical health. Studies show that as economic prosperity falls, problems with our bodies rise.
In April, analysis by Janke et al indicated that a recession would lead to a large rise in the prevalence of chronic ill health. “During the most intense part of the financial crisis of the late 2000s in the UK, there was around a 5pc fall in the employment rate, a drop that was low by international standards," wrote the authors. "Assuming a (possibly conservative) fall in the employment rate in the coming year of the same size, our analysis predicts that the prevalence of chronic conditions in the working-age population will rise by somewhere between 7pc and 10pc." To put that into context, the increase translates into around 900,000 more people of working age suffering from at least one chronic condition.
Also in April, a briefing note from the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that it was already a matter of debate whether the adverse health effects of a recession may even be greater than the increased morbidity and mortality caused by the pandemic itself. “Groups that are vulnerable to poor health are likely to be hit hardest even if the crisis hit all individuals equally, but evidence is already emerging that the economic repercussions of the crisis are falling disproportionately on young workers, low-income families and women,” warned the note.
And then there's the evidence that abounds from the previous recession, which began in 2008. Research by the Kenexa High Performance Institute in 2012 showed that stress among UK employees had risen by 10 percentage points over the preceding three years. These were people who had kept their jobs but whose mental health was impacted nonetheless; worries about job security and the sense by individuals of a loss of control over the future of their work, it seemed, was triggering a mental health response.
Other studies have demonstrated that economic hardship and financial threat are significant predictors of stress, anxiety and depression. And to think: all this comes when we're already living through an unprecedented period of Covid-induced strain.
How to spot the signs that you're secretly stressed
Stress won’t always announce itself as such. According to the mental health charity Mind, signs of stress include such diverse afflictions as a feeling you’ve lost your sense of humour; increased worry about your health (which, during a pandemic, seems all the more likely); finding it hard to make decisions; snapping at people; biting your nails; picking at your skin; struggling to concentrate; eating too much or too little; smoking or drinking more than usual; and a feeling of restlessness.
Hair loss has also been linked to stress, and this week came reports that the pandemic was already causing people’s hair to fall out. It's currently unclear whether the cases are a direct symptom of the Covid virus, a ramification of the body dealing with the trauma caused by the disease, or a combination of the two.
Clinical psychologist Linda Blair cites further unusual signs of stress, including a feeling of impatience. “You fly off the handle about things you would normally wait for,” she says. “Whenever someone asks you to plan something, you get especially angry, because we’re afraid to plan and have another disappointment. Anger is a cover up for fear.”
You might also suffer a new inability to finish simple tasks you used to finish, she adds, “because with high cortisol you’re distracted by anything that isn’t as you expect it to be. It throws you because you’re on such high alert for anything unusual.”
Muscle and nerve pains can occur in unexpected places, quite often emanating down the neck and shoulders. “We pick up danger by constantly looking, so you hold yourself quite tight at the top of the body,” Blair explains.
You might find yourself displaying overly emotional reactions to things such as films because “your emotional control isn’t very good” when you’re stressed. “It’s worn out.”
What can you do about it?
The power of any individual to change the external circumstances is limited when it comes to national or global events such as pandemic or recession. So what can we do to manage our health responses to them?
Blair recommends prioritising some time - perhaps 10 minutes each day - to practise breathing slowly in and out. But there’s something else as well:
“You absolutely have to ringfence how much news you listen to, avoiding it particularly an hour before bedtime because then you wreck your sleep,” she says. “Almost everything on the news you can’t change, so it subtly reinforces your sense of helplessness.”