As the clocks go back where I live and the nights grow longer with every passing day, it is the time of year many of us dread as it can almost be perceived to signal the annual onset of human hibernation. The weather is colder, the rain more frequent and the great outdoors has, all of a sudden, lost its appeal and become somewhat uninviting.
This is a yearly experience for a growing percentage of people. But this has been anything but a normal year for us all.
We have all experienced a profoundly unpredictable year so far in 2020, which has wreaked havoc with our mental health and denied us our innate desire for certainty and inherent inclination to plan ahead. As the dreaded second spike in Coronavirus cases is upon us, we face, yet again, an uncertain few months. Many are getting increasingly anxious while some have already faced bereavement, financial difficulty, or illness of a loved one. Without the warm fading memory of summer or of the recharging hiatus of a proper summer holiday we would normally have enjoyed by the time we hit this season, this dispirited feeling is deepening.
We now approach winter and the dwindling mood that sometimes accompanies it- a phenomenon that has become known as SAD (seasonal affective disorder) which can lead us to feel more irritable, lethargic, and increase our self-doubt. SAD can manifest in behaviours such as over-eating, sleeping more, and a decreased sense of pleasure in what we would normally value and find pleasure in. It is the time of year when people with otherwise normal mental health states start to exhibit symptoms of depression. Those with a pre-existing mental health condition may find this time of year makes this worse too. It has been described as ‘having your own portable black cloud’.
Charities such as MIND offer helpful resources and stories of people affected and how they have developed coping strategies to deal with SAD and other related mental health difficulties.
A transient state of depression can cause us to withdraw and not want to spend time with others.
This is likely to be worse over the impending winter as our interactions outside our household are limited by the restrictions imposed to control the global pandemic. We feel more isolated and it’s easy to think we are suffering alone. The upcoming events of fireworks night and later Christmas, which would normally signal planning for and anticipation of joyful get-togethers with family or colleagues, seem overly optimistic at this point.
It is no wonder we feel so deflated and sullen.
However, it is important to know when and where to seek help should this transient and mostly mild shift become more serious and prolonged.
If you find you are experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings, do talk to your GP or self-refer to IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) which is easy to do online by entering your postcode to find local help. This can connect you to talking therapies that are effective and evidence-based and can even be delivered over the phone if preferred. A study in 2015 found that patients with severe depression can benefit just as much from psychological therapies as they do from antidepressant medication. Patients can now choose their treatment and are offered both of these paths.
Talking therapies have also been found to help those who suffer from long-term conditions or difficult life events which can be predisposing factors to the onset of depression.
For most people, however, SAD will be a mild and transient state we can navigate through using awareness and a shift in mindset.
The New Economic Foundation (NEF) published a report in 2008 on the 5 ways to wellbeing. This outlined the five areas where small improvements can help decrease mental health problems and really help people flourish.
The 5 ways to wellbeing were defined to be:
2. Be active
3. Give to others
4. Take notice
5. Keep learning
Simple everyday habits we can incorporate into our day, especially at a time we might be struggling, can in fact have a profound protective effect.
We all need to feel connected to others and our environment but this can prove particularly challenging at present. Simple ways to achieve this may include prioritizing family meals with your household or support bubble and calling or video calling friends or relatives. Social media and email communication tend not to have the same beneficial effect. Connecting with nature through spending time outdoors is also immensely uplifting.
Active does not need to mean hours at the gym but perhaps a short walk outdoors or some strength training or yoga will add to your feeling of positivity as the body releases chemicals called endorphins that interact with the brain receptors to improve concentration, memory, and a feeling of overall wellbeing. Many people have found the Couch to 5K app from ONEYOU really helpful for improving fitness through running during the pandemic.
The buzzword trending for some time now: ‘Mindfulness’ and it isn’t as difficult as it may be perceived to be. Free online meditations can help you train your mind to be more aware of sights, smells, and other senses to elevate your enjoyment of your surroundings and help you become more present. Apps such as Calm and Headspace are good for breath and sleep meditation. Being more aware and present can help you enjoy what you eat, see, and feel more. Being screen-free can really enhance your experience of being present when spending time with others or walking etc. It can help you tune in to your inner state to anticipate stress, anger, or fear, so you are able to respond more deliberately rather than on impulse. From an Islamic perspective, taking notice can help us ponder and be in awe of our surroundings.
The Quran states: ‘Indeed in the creations of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the day and night there are signs for people of reason’ (3;190)
Giving to others is strongly encouraged by our faith. In addition to the obvious benefit of this for others, it enables us to feel useful, gives us a sense of being needed, and contributing to the world around us. This can counteract feelings of helplessness and despair that can often accompany depressed states. Giving can be anything that you are able to afford to others, be it time, money, listening, poetry, art or any other skill others can benefit from.
Feeling low can make us feel stagnant and disinterested in self-improvement or progression. These feelings can be overcome by little advances in knowledge gained or skills acquired. Whether you enjoy reading, listening to podcasts, or have been wanting to learn a new language or skill, just embarking on this journey will feel hugely empowering. Even reading 1 page a day or learning 5 new words will build over time and give you a sense of progress. Islam strongly encourages lifelong learning. In the holy Quran, we read: ‘My Lord, increase me in knowledge’ (20;114), and Hadith instructs us to ‘Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.’ The vast collection of audiobooks available through the Audible app has facilitated the desire to read especially for those too busy to do so consistently.
Building new habits that support our wellbeing doesn’t need to be difficult or overwhelming. It is about being aware of what we are doing now and making small incremental changes that shift the direction long term.
James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, advises making a list of all that you do in one day and putting a + sign on habits you wish to keep to ‘become the person you want to be’ and – next to those you wish to drop as they take you away from the person you want to be.
Focusing on goals is helpful, but focusing on the next step to take today on your journey is more achievable and more pressing.
As the philosopher, Aristotle once said: ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.’