As the dark evenings draw ever-closer, almost imperceptibly creeping in, and the mornings become more difficult to arise from, there was for me this week the sudden realisation that Autumn is very much here. With Autumn comes, for many, Seasonal Affective Disorder (rather appropriately abbreviated to S.A.D.), otherwise known as “the winter blues”.
It’s a real thing, and until only a few years back I had no idea it would have played such an important role in me discovering a greater sense of productivity; balance, and happiness, and in understanding changes to workplace behaviour.
This isn’t official advice, nor clinical guidance – it’s just what has worked especially well for me, and I know how valuable real-world advice can be. It does mean that you should read this on balance, and consider how it may fit for yourself.
Having lived with depression through much of my teens, and through key periods of my adult life, I have come to learn much about, and develop a cautious respect for mental health, or “emotional wellbeing” as I prefer to term it. I think it’s more accurate. Covid-19 has put a real Debbie Downer on things for many, and with the sudden quite dramatic lack of light, we’ll all begin to feel that draw to an innate circadian rhythm. Some people just push through the winter not really considering why they feel sluggish, tired and a bit foggy of mind – blaming the miserable weather. That heavy, suffocating blanket that pins you into bed in the mornings, and which amplifies the bleakness in the afternoons, cutting your daylight hours to an absolute minimum, is to them just what comes with winter. Of course it’s all simply nature, and entirely natural. For centuries humans hibernated, or at the very least practiced a hibernation of sorts: we made hay while the sun shone; preserved foods and then hunkered down for the winter. The shorter daylight hours, and longer darker hours coupled with colder temperatures make us still to this day reach for more comforting foods high in fat – a hangover from our ancestors who built up their fat reserves to overwinter. So many answers as to why we do what we do – and how to change them for the better, can be found in the natural world: the world we so often ignore, staring back at us right through the windows we built.
Mental health, for me at least, is about decisions, and choices – and being in control. Because when you feel foggy, or lost, or anxious; when the long dark days match your mood, and the howling winds and rain mirror the feelings in your heart, it can feel as though you aren’t in control of how you feel. But you are. You are. You really are. Those feelings of loneliness, abandonment, anxiety and a lack of sense of purpose, direction or balance grip you so tightly, that you don’t feel like you have any control over it – but you do. Feeling better about your emotional wellbeing is about the choices we make and the control we have over them.
Start to spot the things that make you happy, or grateful; actively look out for them. Sunsets; smiles; people; presence – a moment of warmth in a good cup of tea, or coffee. Tiny moments that you should start to collect throughout the day. Simple things, with no agenda and that may seem insignificant, but it’s those tiny things that all add up. It’s raining but you remembered your umbrella? That’s a tiny moment of something especially positive.
Occasionally, however, that feeling that things aren’t okay will grip you, and you can’t see anything good. I know, because I’ve felt it and because I’m human – I still feel it sometimes. We all do because to not have those entirely normal moments of being human, is to not be human. And to feel human; of things good and not so, is a privilege. As Rainer Maria Rilke so beautifully advised: “let everything happen to you, beauty and terror – just keep going. No feeling is final.” Allow those moments when things are unsettled to happen; give your mind the time to rest and settle and don’t put yourself under any extra pressure.
I’d highly recommend having a read of Matt Haig‘s wonderful book Reasons to Stay Alive. The somewhat dramatic title should be embraced, not feared; it’s a beautiful and thought-provoking book that’s easy to read in one go. I also found an SAD lamp invaluable: they’re essentially an alarm clock (mine’s a few years old now and has an option to use the radio, pre-programmed bird song, or to pull music from a USB drive – I have the bird song and it’s beautiful), but with a light built in that gradually, over a period of time (I have mine set to 30 minutes) gets brighter just like the gradual rising of the sun. The idea is that it mimics the sunrise and the light very slowly stimulates your brain through your closed eyelids, resulting in you waking up gradually and to a warmly lit room. Whenever I forget to set it and my phone alarm wakes me to a dark room, it’s noticeably more difficult to get out of bed and I’m much groggier. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
But more than anything, make the choice to find happiness wherever you can: small wins. See beauty and peace in things around you, and enjoy the feeling of control of making the decision to seek out the moments that comfort, heal and ultimately bring happiness.