September is not my favourite month, even on its warmer days, there’s a chill in the morning and evenings and over the course of the month we lose two hours of daylight. Which for people like me who are seasonally affected, is not good. I’ve written about how I cope with this before (here) but this year I want to really drill what I do.
I have good and bad years with SAD. Generally, the less I have to do in winter, the better I cope, over the last decade the best years were when I spent most of November and December on the sofa recovering from an osteotomy and the following six weeks on reduced hours and the year before last when I was made redundant in September and didn’t work all through October, November and half of December were good years. (The elephant in the room here was that I didn’t have to worry about money during those years either!). Conversely, the worse years were right after my dad and Stef died because I was already unhappy so SAD was an additional layer of depression.
This fits the pattern that shows that people often find their SAD is much improved when they retire because they can get up with the daylight and generally don’t have to do loads when it’s dark. Which means that the winter of 2041 is going to be excellent for me but for the next 22 winters I’ll need to be all about my coping strategies.
Before I start talking about that I want to talk about what I don’t do. I don’t have a SAD light therapy lamp. This is based on what I know about myself (I’m not getting out of bed at 5:30am to sit in front of a light for 30 minutes) and light therapy works is only really effective if you use it first thing. Furthermore, light therapy treatment should be properly supervised by a medical professional, blue light straight into your brain can have some alarming side effects. Lastly, there is some evidence that CBT has a better long term impact on SAD than light therapy. For all of these reasons, it’s not a treatment option I use right now but as I say every time I write SAD and depression, go and see a professional and work with them to decide and implement the best course of action for you.
So let’s talk about the things that I do, which starts with my fundamental truth in autumn and winter which is that my body and brain lie to me about what will make me feel better. I’ve read so many things recently on self-care and on intuitively listening to your body, which I understand and support for the people that approach works for. It doesn’t work all the way for me because my body and my brain are full of lies and empty promises about what will ultimately make me feel good.
Because although it’s symptoms are slight different, SAD is depression and depression lies. What my brain and body tell me in autumn and winter is that I should stay indoors, in bed preferably, that I shouldn’t engage with people because I’m useless and unlovable, that I should eat lots of food of the carby, sugary type. Some of this true, if I could wake up and go to sleep with the light, life would be easier but the rest of it is nonsense. Lying in bed all day would give me back ache, I am not useless and carbs and sugar while delicious are not good for any of us as our sole food source.
This means that my self-care has to involve an element of doing things I don’t want to do but that will ultimately make life better for me. Generally, I find my life in winter works better if I treat myself like a toddler, I set boundaries and I bribe myself!
I read something the other day about how people struggle to stay on top of life admin and not being on top of it can be a sign of burnout and depression. It’s a year round requirement but I pay particular attention to it in the winter because I know how easy it is for me to lose my focus and let’s face it, interest, when I’m seasonally affected. These are the most important things I do..
Budget and Bills
The unfortunate truth is that the world doesn’t stop because I’m struggling to be interested in it during the winter and paying the rent prevents me from being homeless. All of my bills are set up as direct debits or standing orders and I track them with a budget spreadsheet (an invention of my mother’s). However, those payments only go through if there is money in the bank, so I set aside a time every week to check my bank account, log my spending and changes to direct debits. This gives me an overview of where I am, scheduling a time and facing it head on is a much better way of coping, than having a vague worry about whether you have enough money in your account all month is better for your mental health.
Menu Plan/Food Shopping/Food Prep
I’m a big fan of all of this but in the winter it becomes more important. Firstly, there’s less food coming off the plot so from a budget point of view it’s good practice for me to know what food is in the house and what I plan to eat. From a practical point of view, having my meals accounted for makes life easier when I feel terrible, it’s one less decision to make and one less thing to feel bad about, it also prevents me from being side tracked by a massive bar of chocolate and ensures that my diet is relatively healthy. Finally, and this is the self-care element I like the most, at a time when I feel that I can’t do anything useful, I can look at the food I’ve prepped and show my lying brain that I can look after myself and I’m not useless.
In August I start to really stick to a housework routine that I follow very loosely through the summer. I do the following things weekly,
- hoover and mop the floors in the hall, bathroom and kitchen
- empty all the bins and take the recycling out
- change the bed
- change the towels
- clean the bathroom and kitchen
- tidy the living room
- Laundry is also done weekly, starting on Thursday nights and everything is washed dried, ironed and put away over the weekend and at the very latest on Monday night
A clean and tidy living space helps me feel and stay in control. To that end I wash up and make my bed every day too!
While I believe that the life admin tasks are a form of self-care, the things below are more obviously so…
I have a hard 9pm cut off for use of technology, and I make sure that I’m sorted for the morning. Other Golden Hour activities are yoga and/or a hot bath. (I read something about a study that said taking a bath for about 20 minutes a day reduced depression in a group of depressed people against a control group who didn’t have a bath. They think it’s something to do with raising core temperature. It was a tiny study but I thought it was worth a go.) So I try to do yoga, spend 30 minutes in a bath and then go to bed. The other thing I do at this point is start to lower the lighting. So overhead lights in the bedroom are switched off, I use candles in the bathroom so that my body gets the idea that it’s time to sleep.
I have talked before about how for me attitude often follows action. Especially during winter, I treat my body well, I moisturise, I look after my feet, I use nail oil. I have found that if I take care of my body, I begin to view myself as worthy of care.
Again this is something you need to decide for yourself, after years of trial and error I take a multi-vitamin, extra vitamin d(see the NHS’ recommendation), folic acid (I have a less spotty chin when I take it versus when I don’t), a joint tablet and I’ve been taking a menopause supplement (I’m that age!) for the last 4 months. I also take an anti-histamine when I catch a cold because sometimes, a cold can trigger my asthma and best I can work out it’s because I have an allergy response to the cold. Do they really help? They seem to and I’ll take what I can whether it’s a placebo or not.
I’m not great at this but it’s easier to cope when your body and your mind are at the same level of tiredness, so right now, I’m trying to be consistent about walking to and from the station to home and trying to make sure that I stretch and do yoga before bed. When the clocks go back, getting out at lunchtime for a walk in the daylight is essential otherwise I’d never see the sun.
Being mindful about alcohol
I really wish it wasn’t so bad for you because I love the taste of alcohol but I hate the effect. Anyway as the daughter of someone who had major issues with booze, I really try to be careful about my alcohol intake because we only have one liver! As winter also includes Christmas, I try to follow the two rule (no more than two drinks at a time, no more than two nights in a row and at least two days abstinence.) I don’t always stick to it but it just makes me more aware of it. This is also why I nominated September as a no drink month because it’s a really good way to reset my tolerance.
Light at the right times
I have a wake up lamp that I set today actually, which jogs me wakefulness, but that’s not all, when I get up, I turn on all the lights in the rooms I’m going to be in, to signal that it’s time to be awake. Conversely at night, I lower the lighting way before bedtime to signal that it’s time to sleep. I bathe by candlelight and have candles lit in the living room when I’m in there because it’s cosy and hygge is important too.
I have been in and out of therapy for years, I use it when I need it. During winter, it’s handy to have a check in, so if I’m not in weekly therapy, I’ll schedule some check ins because it’s useful in ensuring that I’m in balance. When I was made redundant in 2017, I did monthly sessions to make sure that I was on an even keel, and when started my current job role in May 2018, I committed to six months of weekly therapy. I’ve been find since but there has been some stuff this year and with a new role starting next month right as the days get shorter, I’ve started again and with have sessions until mid-March. At that point, we’ll make a decision about whether I need to continue then. Therapy isn’t and shouldn’t be just about dealing with crisis, I use it to ensure that I don’t have a crisis. Although it’s a relationship, it’s not a friendship. I have a therapist I have seen for over 10 years but that isn’t 10 continuous years, it’s when I need a neutral space to work out why I’m feeling and acting in certain ways and what I’m going to do about it (or not). Therapy only works if you do. There is one more thing to say about my love of therapy, while a lot of therapy should challenge you, sometimes you and a therapist won’t be a good fit and it’s ok to acknowledge that and move on. When I first started doing this, I just wasn’t comfortable with the first therapist I saw and she and recommended someone else who she knew had a different approach, who I work with really well. However, if you are on your fifth therapist in a year, the problem could be you!
It’s hard when I’m in the SAD fog to seek people out and be social, I’m an introvert so all social interaction is tiring for me. However, as particularly lovely Friday afternoon phone call with a friend reminded me last week relationships with people are good for me too. So while I don’t overcommit, I try to make sure that I keep in touch with my friends and see them. I’m also really honest about what’s happening and why I need the space, people are . much more understanding when they know what’s going on
The Perspective Police
Comparison is the thief of joy, however, I find it very useful to reset my perspective on my life all the time but especially in winter. I don’t live in poverty, I have a roof over my head, I can pay my bills, feed myself and I’m not suffering from any terrible diseases of the body or mind. I have people that care for me and will feed me gin and pizza and listen to me when I am down. I have faith in a loving God. Yes, I am seasonally affected but spring always comes. I am very lucky indeed. There is a reason I’ve spend some Novembers being thankful!
Is this how I feel or is it the SAD talking?
Finally, none of this works perfectly all the time, sometime you have to ask the question, is this me or is it SAD? Examine what’s happening and go from there
This is most of what I do to cope and the nice thing is that it’s not forever, spring will come and my mood will improve, so I just do the best I can and go from there..