working through winter

It is that time of year in Scotland when the clocks are about to “go back” (when our time reverts to GMT, rather than BST). My bipolar has always had seasonal triggers (generally in very early spring, and then following the autumn equinox) and for me, as for so many other people, this time of year can often be rather worrying. Am I going to become ill again? How will I face the dark? Am I going to be able to just get through the next few months ok? This year has been really difficult for everyone – really, everyone has their own stuff to deal with – and many of us have found our horizons contracting, as we work from home, often for the first time. Since my stroke ten years ago, I’ve worked largely from home, and despite facing difficult physical challenges (as well as the mental health issues, which I’ve had to deal with since I was a teenager), I’ve developed several strategies for working through the winter, and I now find this time of year much easier to manage. Here are four simple things that I find useful.

1 Build switching off into your routine
When you have a job that’s as weirdly amorphous as mine (writing, designing stuff, making things, managing a business) it has a natural tendency to expand and seep into every aspect of one’s life. I think it is crucial to be able to set a really strong routine, within which there are set times for switching off, as well as being “on.” I’m very good at being on, but not terribly good at switching off, and so that’s the bit I’ve really had to work at. For me, the best way of switching off is to get away from my desk and get outside (see my last point), but this year in particular, I’ve also really appreciated the benefit of avoiding my phone, all social media, and all alerts at particular times: viz, when I’m out walking, when I’m eating lunch, and after 6pm, every evening. At the start of this year, I decided to read long-form journalism again over lunch (rather than scrolling endlessly through disconnected online snippets) and I’ve found the effects of this simple change on the way I work in the afternoons really interesting. But then perhaps it isn’t surprising that setting aside some time to immerse oneself in new ideas and chew them over properly might produce a more useful habit of mind than endless doom-scrolling through threads and screeds from all-too familiar voices on platforms whose default modes of address are outrage and self-promotion

2 Sleep is important

Regulating and managing my sleep is honestly the best tool I have for managing my bipolar, and from what I’ve read, sleep and its management seems crucial to dealing with many other mental health matters. At the heart of most of my dangerously nutty episodes has been a serious lack of sleep, and a general lack of oomph (and / or the desire to continually rest) can certainly consolidate the most pernicious aspects of depression. Since my stroke forced upon me the need to sleep for 9 or 10 hours every night, I have stuck to a highly regimented sleep routine, which involves going to bed at exactly the same (to most people, ludicrously early) hour, and getting up at the same time every day as well. If I have to take a short nap, I don’t do so after 2pm. As I say, I adopted this rigid sleep regimen out of necessity after my stroke, but I discovered that it also helped enormously in the management of my mental health. I do still suffer from insomnia from time to time, and spend long nights with the World Service and Dotun Adebayo. At such times, I avoid daytime naps entirely, work through my tiredness during the day, and ensure I go to bed at the same time, getting up at the same time again. You might think that this level of attention to one’s sleep routine is very boring or very regimented—and yes, it certainly is both of these things. But I can also tell you from experience that being boring or regimented is much better than being mad or depressed. Sleep is really important.

3. Stay on top of yourself
The best person to recognise how you are feeling is you – but it is also important to recognise that you can also be really good at deceiving yourself. I know only too well how easy it is to respond to a routine winter low with a completely catastrophic reaction: “everything is terrible” or “I just can’t deal with this” rather than “I’m feeling low.” Once you recognise the basic reality of the feeling – the fact that you are feeling low or anxious – you might find you are able to tolerate the low mood or anxiety, rather than catastrophise it. And if you can tolerate it, over time, you can start to try to interrogate it, and later, you might be able develop a strategy (or set of strategies) to address it, or to move on from it. Living with my own seasonally-triggered mental health problems since I was a teenager, I’ve learned to recognise that there are particular thought patterns (or types of thought) that often mark the start of something troubling, and that being able to recognise such thoughts, as my own personal mental health symptoms (rather than as objective truths or realities) is often enough to stop them spiralling out of control into something more dangerous. If this sounds like a broadly Buddhist approach to mental health management – that’s because it is – and I’ve certainly found developing a meditative practice to be very useful in this respect – most especially in the winter months. I know that meditation is not for everyone, but really, it is just one of many different ways of finding some quiet, internal space to be honest with yourself. In some ways, this point reiterates my first—about the necessity of switching off—and however you do it, its just as important to switch off one’s own internal noise as it is to switch off from the pressures of home-working. Sometimes switching off one’s own default internal noise is all that’s needed to prompt a shift in perspective. And sometimes a shift in perspective is all that’s needed.

4. Get outside. Every day.
If there’s anything that can prompt such shifts in perspective, allow you to switch off from your desk or phone, or indeed to switch off from yourself, for me, it is getting outside. In the autumn and winter, I’ve found it crucial to make time to spend time outside, during the day, every single day, whatever the weather. I would say this is equally important to me as a disabled person, who needs to make her body move, as it is to me as someone with seasonally-triggered mental health issues, who needs to make use of whatever winter light is there. If you live in Scotland (or another equally changeable clime) get some decent wet weather clothing. And why not get a dog if you don’t have one already? A dog needs to get outside and she or he will make sure that you do so too. A dog’s enjoyment of the outdoors will also bring you much joy, and help you to appreciate where you are, wherever that may be. Even when the weather is grotty, and whatever your surroundings, outside the world is shifting daily, doing its thing, and from growing (and dying) plants, to the shifting effects of seasonal light on your natural landscape or your built environment, there are countless wonderful things to observe and engage with that are different every single day. If you find the short, dark autumn and winter days really difficult, I definitely recommend sitting with a SAD lamp. I have used one (in autumn and winter mornings) for the past decade, and have found it makes a difference that’s discernible. Before I began using the lamp, I was very sceptical: I was depressed. Life was terrible. How on earth could just sitting in front of a bright light possibly be of any help to me? But this was my depression speaking (depression has a terrible tendency to puff itself up, and describe itself as completely inevitable, inescapable, insurmountable). One of the first steps in tackling depression’s illusion of ineluctability (and it is an illusion) is to recognise that there are many simple things – like getting outside every day or trying a SAD lamp – that can’t make matters worse for you, and might well help. Try it and see.

So – having a strong daily routine, with fixed switch-off times; paying attention to my sleep patterns; staying on top of myself (and my unruly thoughts) and spending an hour outside each day – exercising and getting as much light as I can – are my top tips for working through the winter. I’m posting this in the hope that some of you – perhaps especially if you’ve a history of seasonally-triggered mental health issues and now find yourself working from home for the first time – might find it in some way useful.

Well, there’s a break in the weather, and I’m off out for a long walk with the dogs. Look after yourselves.