We constructed seven main themes, each capturing several subthemes: (1) Heightened emotionality; (2) feelings of change, loss, and uncertainty; (3) recognising the value of self-care; (4) efforts to think positively; (5) opportunities for growth and development; (6) the importance of togetherness; and (7) frustration with government and media. Figure 1 presents these seven themes alongside their associated subthemes. This section details and explores these themes, drawing on participants quotes to illustrate and evidence the aspects discussed. To indicate reoccurrence, we use: “almost all” participants where a finding is present for 80 or more of the 109 accounts; “the majority” for 55–79 accounts; “many” participants for 26–54 accounts, and “some” where a finding is connected to 25 or fewer accounts. This is for transparency, rather than indicating salience, as within reflexive thematic analysis a finding can be meaningful based on its importance for even a few participants (26).
Theme 1: Experiences of heightened emotionality
The majority of participants described intense, difficult feelings, commonly including sadness, anxiety and worry, anger, frustration, dread, and helplessness; “I have felt angry, sad and had times of bad depression and anxiety throughout the lockdown”; “I occasionally feel helpless, stressed and slightly frustrated”. Some described irritability, often increasingly so: “lockdown has begun to take its toll and I’m becoming agitated and upset at the smallest things.” However, some described drained and detached at times: “I feel so anxious and emotional and simply choose not to think about it, becoming sort of numb again […] I have felt the last couple of months have been a blur and have felt so disassociated from reality.”
Participants’ emotional state seemed to shift often. Some describing mood swings: “I would say that lockdown will have me feeling extremely numb one minute and extremely tense the next.” Some noted shifts over time, saying they felt okay initially but their mood declined, or vice versa; “in the beginning weeks of lockdown it wasn’t too bad as there was a belief that it wouldn’t last over summer, however […] with nothing to look forward to it is very difficult to maintain a positive attitude.”
Participants attributed feelings to various factors, including feeling overwhelmed, feeling trapped within their households, missing people, cancellation of examinations, and uncertainty about the future. Some noted specific circumstances, such as existing mental health difficulties, household conflict, having or living with people with health conditions, and social anxiety; “my moods have been a lot worse since lockdown with depression and an eating disorder getting even worse”; “there was a lot of conflict at first as residing in a place that has caused everyone a lot of pain tends to bring up past feelings.” However, some struggled to understand why they felt the way they did: “I remember at the start of lockdown feeling inexplicably angry. I am not usually an angry person so this confused me.” Some said they had begun overthinking and ruminating, which was difficult: “this situation caused me to overthink everything and gave me more time to be anxious about details that would not even cross my mind during normal time.”
Many reported worries about COVID-19. Some expressed fear for themselves, particularly for those with health conditions: “I am in a high risk category and have felt really anxious about getting COVID-19 as it would most likely make me really ill and possibly kill me.” There was fear for loved ones, often for those who were vulnerable, and of transmitting COVID themselves; for instance, “I was terrified of anyone that I knew getting it, especially my sister who suffers from asthma.”
However, some participants often described more positive feelings. For many these occurred alongside difficult feelings; “I have found that during lockdown, there are days where I experience peace and happiness but other days where I want to break down and cry.” Some reflected that overall, they mostly felt okay: “there has been mixed feelings when in lockdown from being happy to feeling a bit down and stressed but overall it hasn’t been bad!”
Theme 2: Feelings of change, loss, and uncertainty
Many highlighted substantial change to daily life: “nothing has really stayed the same since lockdown began.” They described specific changes, including moving back in with their family, parents working at home, and being unable to freely go out. Many noted the change to their daily routine: “the major thing since lockdown is not doing a lot, now there is no school or exams, I have no structure to my day.” Many described lockdown as boring, with days blurring together:
It feels less like there has been any great change and more like everything is just stagnant. Within lockdown, the days just sort of run on to each other and it feels like everything has just paused, this ultimately has led to a slight dread, feeling like I’m missing out on life in some way.
Almost all participants shared feelings of loss. This included loss of specific experiences, such as travelling, employment and work experience opportunities, loss of learning resources familiar studying experiences and environment: “I also unfortunately lost a job that took a significant amount of training to get which was disappointing”; “I was meant to have my final semester of my first year at university, party a lot and then travel for the summer before I return to university again.”
Many participants highlighted losses that seemed to represent normative teenage “rites of passage”, including prom, the last day of school, starting university, learning to drive, travelling, and spending time with friends; “I feel a sense of missing out (travelling with friends in the summer, freshers week, making friends, moving in) even though I know we are all in the same position.”; “I missed out on a proper ending to school, my exams that I worked so hard for, all the traditions I had anticipated over the last five years just taken from me so quickly!” Cancellation of examinations were also perceived as a loss, with many participants feeling less in control and like they had wasted time: “When it was announced that GCSEs were cancelled, I was distraught. […] It felt like all of my efforts had gone to waste and I would never get back all the time I had spent or ‘wasted’ revising”.
Many described broader feelings of loss. Some outlined loss of freedom and independence; “not being able to do what I want or go where I want is something I’ve been struggling with.” It sometimes seemed to be the conceptual loss of freedom that was difficult; “I do wish I had the opportunity to do things, even though I wouldn’t have done them anyway.” Some described loss of purpose and motivation now they did not have daily goals and/or formal education settings: “I often find myself refusing to get out of bed in the mornings because there doesn’t seem to be any point.” For others, it was the loss of relationships, with some reporting feeling more distant from those outside their households, or that relationships were weakening: “my friendships are now more distant as it’s harder to keep up with people as there’s nothing to talk about and also a lot of people have lost motivation to want to talk.”
A small number of participants disclosed a family bereavement. These participants described having to sit separately from family at funerals or not being able to attend at all: “not being able to go to [my grandad’s] funeral was extremely hard and upsetting.”
The majority of participants described feeling uncertain about the future, particularly around educational and vocational possibilities. Cancellation of examinations and lack of clarity around alternative grading was frequently commented on here. Many noted that this brought new uncertainty about grades and the future, including that grades wouldn’t be taken seriously “because it seems like we ‘haven’t earned it’”, and there were fears about the long-term impact:
I can’t even sit an exam to determine a [university] place, nobody seems to understand how the teachers will rank us so I can’t plan what uni I’ll be doing to, whether or not I will be able to move out, whether or not I should take a year out etc. and being unable to make a plan means there’s no way I can make myself feel in control of my situation.
Vocationally, many felt lost opportunities (e.g., work experience) could impact their chances in next steps; “I cannot get work experience in the NHS [National Health Service], as I want to do physiotherapy, and I’m worrying about it all the time.” Some highlighted feelings of uncertainty about what university and college would be like moving forward and the economic impact of the pandemic created uncertainty: “I’m also fearful of job opportunities in the future due to the spiralling economy.”
Though participants’ feelings of uncertainty was often focused on such educational and vocational trajectories, there were also broader concerns and a wider overall sense of increased unpredictability moving forward:
I’m also worried in general about what the future of the world might look like, and how long things will take to go back to normal. Will my young adult years have to be spent socially distancing? Thinking about this too much quickly makes me feel quite depressed so I try not to.
Theme 3: Recognising the value of self-care
Participants described a range of self-care strategies. Many described how hobbies and activities helped them to relax and feel better, such as baking, drawing, exercising and eating healthily, being outdoors, learning new things, and spending time with pets. Participants highlighted how such activities helped them keep busy and pass the time, and could distract them from difficult feelings: “if I didn’t keep myself busy with the baby [younger sibling], films or sketching I would allow the loneliness to consume me.”
Many described developing routine and structure for themselves and creating goals; “one thing that is helping with my wellbeing during lockdown is having a routine in place, as it allows me to keep busy and stops me from getting anxious and worried.” However, such approaches could feel pressurising for some, and some noted the need for self-compassion: “we are going through a major crisis globally, we have to cut ourselves some slack.”
Although participants recognised self-care as important, some found it difficult: “lockdown has also caused me to start unhealthy habits such as not doing any exercise, oversleeping, and generally not looking after my own physical and mental health anymore.” Some described strategies they saw as helpful and problematic, including smoking and emotion suppression: “I know that it is unhealthy to suppress your emotions and not deal with anxious thoughts but that has been mainly my coping strategy.”
Theme 4: Efforts to think positively
Many talked about adopting a “positive mindset” in lockdown, using various thinking strategies. Some focused on positive aspects of lockdown to compensate for more difficult parts: “I miss my friends, a lot, but take this time to relax and enjoy time with your family.” Some participants described trying to accept the situation:
I have had phases where I have been down and upset maybe even a little big angry, but now after a long period I have accepted the fact this is not a normal situation and there is nothing to do to change it.
A small number of participants described suppressing difficult feelings. For some this was presented as a pragmatic decision to stay positive (“instead of moping around feeling sorry about myself I’ve decided to be productive”), while for others this seemed to constitute avoidance: “I feel so anxious and emotional and simply choose not to think about it, becoming sort of numb again.”
Some participants focused on finding things they were grateful for. This included personal circumstances such as supportive relationships, access to outdoor spaces, and limited personal impact in terms of health, finance, or personal risk: “I feel lucky as no one in my family has been affected by COVID-19 so far and I have a supportive family with a big garden and lots of places we can go without the stress of social distancing.” Some described feeling well-suited to lockdown, which helped them think about the experience more positively. This was mostly around being comfortable in one’s own company, preferring to be at home (including due to difficulties such as social anxiety), and already being used to “long distance” relationships: “when I first heard of lockdown I was quite excited […] I really don’t like going outside. I feel safe inside and no one is going to judge me when I am inside.”
Finally, some described hopefulness for a post-lockdown future, focusing on lockdown as temporary: “It is really important that we remind each other that this is only temporary and that the best thing to do is just keep going forward.” These participants frequently highlighted things they would appreciate more afterwards, typically spending time with loved ones: “lockdown has just made me look forward to planning and doing more things with the people I care about.” However, some said this hope was fading over time: “In the beginning weeks of lockdown it wasn’t too bad [… now] it seems inevitable it will last until the end of the year with little hope for the future.”
Theme 5: Opportunities for growth and development
The majority of participants noted positive opportunity within lockdown. Many described relief from “normal” life. This included academic relief, such as being able to work independently and cancellation of examinations: “the thing I like about quarantine is that I can do my work at my own pace”; “not having to take my exams […] took a huge stress off me”. Participants also noted relief from social pressures, with less concern about fitting in or being judged: “no pressure to […] wear the right thing or say the right thing”.
Many reflected that having this much time and space offered novel opportunities for self-exploration and personal development. This included self-reflection, evaluating what they wanted from life, and considering what they might change: “lockdown is looking like a time for self-reflection on the past and things I am doing right and wrong.” Some explored new hobbies (or revisited old ones), or learned new skills: “I am taking the opportunity to learn new skills such as gardening, baking, pointing a patio, cutting and pruning hedges, and vehicle maintenance.” However, this emphasis on personal growth could itself be pressurising:
Just because your friend has perfected her baking or learnt a new instrument doesn’t mean you should hold yourself to the same standard or feel pressure to have learnt a new skill, maybe just take a break and go easy on yourself because we’re in a really stressful situation.
Finally, many highlighted that lockdown had enabled them to strengthen and appreciate their relationships and wider community. Often this was within their household, as they were spending quality time together and supporting one another: “as a family, I think this time together and what is going on has made us appreciate each other so much more.” Some described feeling closer to those outside their household and appreciating friendships more: “I actually think that I have gotten closer [to friends] as I haven’t had much time to do anything else other than talking to friends”.
Theme 6: The importance of togetherness
Almost all participants placed strong emphasis on staying connected to other people during lockdown. The majority noted the value of positive relationships with family and friends, which they said made lockdown easier to cope with. Many wrote about spending more quality time than usual with others in their households, and even talking to those outside their households more, which they enjoyed; “I enjoy spending time with my family as we are all very close anyway and this is the first time in a long while we have all been able to spend time together.” Many participants highlighted that relationships with people who were supportive and understanding was important for wellbeing; “sometimes the feeling of abnormality and uncertainty has upset me or put me in a bad mood but my girlfriend and I have helped each other though those moments.” Many described trying to reach out and stay connected with those outside their households via technology, and often encouraged other teenagers to do the same; “every Friday, I FaceTime my friends and we all drink some wine and talk about anything.”
However, simultaneously to the above, almost all participants described feeling socially disconnected in some way. Some experienced issues with feeling connected in their households. This was due to a general sense of tension within the house (e.g., “[my] family gets into trivial disputes easily because conversations are frequently repeated, and lifestyle habits clash”) or due to difficult relationships with members of their household: “I sometimes feel alone because my relationship with my mum’s husband is pretty strained. I don’t speak to him and try to avoid him so that can lead me to isolate myself in my room.”
Beyond their households, the majority of participants described missing people and feeling isolated and distant from friends and family. Some felt unable to reach out to others, or found it hard to stay meaningfully connected; “lockdown has made it harder to stay in contact with as many people and it makes me feel so heavy at times, I really miss people but I’m not close enough to just reach out.” Many reflected that remote forms of social interaction (e.g., texts, phoning, video calls, and social media) was difficult to maintain or was not the same as being face-to-face:
Phoning or texting is difficult sometimes so now that’s the only way to talk to people, I talk less to them and it makes me feel quite sad and it isn’t the same anyway. I miss seeing people and being able to hug and just be near them.
These feelings of disconnect were often a source of difficult feelings, and some experienced loneliness: “I have felt incredibly lonely despite having what is honestly a great support system.”
However, many participants described a feeling of being “all in this together.” They described how the pandemic and lockdown had created a sense of community, which seemed to extend to their local neighbourhood, the country, or even the world; “people on my street that I’ve never spoken to before are now interacting with the rest of the neighbourhood which is quite weird, in a nice way.” Shared experiences like clapping for the NHS seemed to contribute to this: “the NHS clap, every Thursday, puts a smile on my face and makes me realise that we’re all in this together.” For some, this broader connectedness seemed helpful in rationalising losses, as they framed them as meaningful sacrifices; “it is stressful not being able to go out, however that it is a small sacrifice to pay.” However, some expressed considerable frustration with those breaking lockdown restrictions, highlighting that this would have negative implications for everyone else:
I’m constantly frustrated by the people that don’t care about the situation, don’t listen to the government rules and act like they don’t care. I’m angry and sad because I know that because of them we might risk seeing friends again or have one normal month this summer.
Theme 7: Frustration with government and media
Some participants expressed frustration towards the UK government and the news media. In relation to the government, these participants said they felt the pandemic was being poorly handled, with concerns that lockdown was being eased too soon (note time of data generation was May 2020, when initial restrictions were first beginning to be eased), and that guidance and communication about restrictions was confusing, which sometimes caused conflict: “I go for a walk with a friend however come back to face confrontation with my brother as he believes that to be unsafe. If we were given clearer guidance, then these disputes could be avoided.” A small number of participants did not agree with lockdown restrictions: “the way lockdown was imposed and handled has been a great violation of my right to freedom.”
Participants also noted that they were unsure the government would effectively make educational settings safe: “I am unsure if I want to go back in September because I’m unsure that the government has the best supervisions.” They also raised concerns about how much guidance had been offered for their age group, particularly around understanding approaches to cancelled or forthcoming examinations and ensuring limited impact of lost educational experiences:
Year 12 (my year) have already missed 2 months of education and will go on longer and we still have to do our A levels. The information we are receiving is not clear and practically non-existent when it comes to sixth forms. [footnote: these examinations were later cancelled]
Some also highlighted frustration with media, particularly news media, explaining that it was often distressing: “it is filled with contradicting, unpleasant information and isn’t good for mental health.” Some expressed irritation with how negative the news coverage was, which they felt was irresponsible: “The news channels have been extremely helpful in depressing the country even further by primarily focusing on every negative possible during this pandemic instead of attempting to lift our moods or at least mention some form of positivity.” A few participants said they had begun limiting their engagement with the news for the benefit of their wellbeing: “I’ve recently stopped watching the news because that wasn’t helping me at all, seeing all those numbers of people that unfortunately passed away or have got it is honestly heart-breaking.”