Wtf happened? It was the middle of a heatwave, we sweated through our commutes and our pants, and my Uber driver’s chat was about how he’d ordered an air con unit off Gumtree at 3am, then immediately driven 20 miles to collect it. He beamed as he turned around (we were at traffic lights) to tell me, “And I grew up in Pakistan, man!”
And now here we are. Autumn always arrives like the lights on at the end of a party; you stand around giddy and blinking into the harsh reality that the fun’s over, you’re not sure where your coat is, and the morning is gonna hurt. Every morning. Until March. Don’t get me wrong, this time of year has its redeeming features. Glowing Autumnal landscapes. Cosy pub roasts. Carol singing (fine… I’ll wait). But for the past two autumn/winters, I haven’t been able to appreciate any of them – including carol singing, where I found myself walking off mid-song at Waterloo station because I couldn’t fight off the tears to carry on.
In my experience, SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is no different to depression. It’s not just, “Oh my god it’s 4pm and it’s DARK ALREADY!” (though this is rubbish). It’s depression that turns up as reliably as having that conversation at least five times by mid-November. Here’s one thing I don’t particularly want depression to be: Bang. On. Time.
I remember exactly where I was last October (strolling down Brixton Hill) when I looked up and suddenly didn’t like my life very much. It was as if someone had turned a dimmer switch in my head and the world felt darker, crueller, and a little bit hopeless.
But I’ve written a blog on it, innit!
I’d already been on two hellish journeys with depression, first in 2014 and then again in Autumn 2016. The second time was a terrifying wake-up call: my ‘how I beat depression’ blog had over 30,000 views by this point and I was still receiving heartfelt messages of thanks from people who’d found hope in it. Yet I was back at the bottom of the pit, obsessing over reasons to hate myself and living in a world with the joy sucked out of it. I felt like an absolute bloody fraud. And later like an absolute bloody idiot when I realised I’d been doing approximately nada to defend myself.
No one is immune from depression, and it took me a while to accept that this includes hopeless optimists who’ve written blogs on how to beat it [waves frantically]. So I wrote another blog (naturally) on ‘how to defend your mind’, in which I advocated exercise, regular mindfulness practice, and learning something new. I thought I’d worked it out (this time).
So when I recognised that familiar fog of hopelessness as I strolled down Brixton Hill last October, I was scared. It was exactly a year after the last time and, unlike the sun, the pattern was staring me in the face (the October bit, not Brixton Hill – it’s not the most inspiring place on earth but it’s not known to spontaneously plunge people into despair). Once again, I’d let a blissful summer lull me into a false sense of invincibility. And I nosedived.
So this year, after two winters in a row where dinner was regularly a scotch egg and a packet of biscuits, I decided that perhaps, perhaps, I needed more than, “But life is so wonderful in the summer! LOOK AT HOW WONDERFUL IT IS.” I needed a plan. And rather than scaring me, the seasonal pattern gave me some hope – because I knew what I was dealing with now. Just the Earth’s orbit pattern, no biggie. Still, at least it’s reliable. This year, I had a deadline (fecking October) and I was going to be ready – regardless of the fact that I was so ludicrously happy in the summer I felt like depression couldn’t possibly touch me. I wasn’t falling for that one again.
The science bit
So why does this time of year make us feel, if not full-blown depressed, then generally a little bit shit?
Not to get all L’Oreal about it, but here’s the science bit: lack of sunlight. I know, right: no shit, Sherlock. But I’m not just talking about the conscious feeling of ugh-ness when it’s grey and dark outside – there is more to it. A lack of sunlight messes up production of hormones in your body – melatonin and serotonin – that affect mood, sleep and appetite, and it also buggers your body clock. That’s why the majority of us are somewhere between less-happy and clinically depressed, tired, and craving carbs with a side of carbs.
But this isn’t just an effect of winter, it’s an effect of lifestyle: two hundred years ago, 75% of the population worked outdoors. Now it’s less than 10%. These days, we’re not even outside to soak up what little daylight there is.
You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s… not forget that. I got thinking about how our physiology and modern lifestyle work together, which led me onto some research. Here’s an interesting fact about human brains: they’ve barely changed in 35,000 years.
Let me take you back (with a touch of artistic licence). It’s 35,000 years ago, you’re wandering about (OUTSIDE) most of the day, looking for berries, or getting a great blast of cardio as you leg it from a saber-toothed tiger, and if you were counting your steps (which you wouldn’t be, early humans weren’t morons) you’d rack up about 22,000 in the course of a normal day (I am basically making this up, but seems about right). Your brain would be healthily occupied without 5,000 choices before it, and you’d be living within a close-knit community where a group get-together didn’t require exchanging 68 WhatsApps.
I regularly fantasize about joining a tribe in the Amazon jungle, and it turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking about how our changing lifestyles are linked to depression. Dr Ilardi has been thinking a lot about it, and his theory and TED talk, Depression is a disease of civilization, naturally hit a chord with me. His depression treatment programme, Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, basically advocates the lifestyle habits that our brains were designed for.
Our brains haven’t changed, but life has. So if you find yourself wanting to scream, “I wasn’t made to live like this!”, it may be comforting to know that you’re right. You weren’t. I mostly want to scream it when I’m on the tube, or before I kick the printer. The reason we need tools to help us is because life in the 21st century is absolutely not what we were built for.
The human psyche is ludicrously complex, and we have needs ranging from the physiological through to the social and spiritual which need to be met in order for us to function optimally. Not to keep banging on about it, but if you lived in a jungle tribe they would mostly be met just through the course of daily life. But in the modern world, we need to consciously plug the gaps. There are tonnes of things you can do from a psychological perspective, but I believe that if any of that is going to have a chance in hell, then sorting out the biological side is pretty fundamental.
So here’s my winter defence strategy to specifically address the lack of sunlight and the fact I’m not a hunter-gatherer:
1. Buy sunlight
Moving to Australia has genuinely crossed my mind. But here’s a less drastic option: a SAD light box. It’s basically a lamp, classed as a medical device for the fact that the brightness of light it emits has the same effect on your brain as the sun. When I was researching them, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of positive reviews; I’d expected at least half would say it was a load of rubbish and waste of money. But I read five-star after five-star review, recognising the stories of people like me whose mental health falls off a cliff around October, and filled with hope that like them, this glowing box of artificial sun would be enough to trick my brain into thinking it was a bright (but unusually cold) day in the middle of July. It sits on my desk at work, and I have an hour or so blast in the morning and another one in the afternoon.
I can’t verify whether my hormonal production is in a better state than last year, but I can verify that just having the light there is quite… nice. There’s a placebo effect in that it doesn’t bother me so much if it’s super dull outside, because having my superficial sun means I at least have a substitute. This sentiment is echoed by my colleague, who on a dull day is guaranteed to ask me to, “Get that lamp on!” Amusingly, as the days get ever-darker it’s become increasingly popular among my colleagues; I recently came back from the printer to find another sat with her face about two inches from it (recommended distance is 50cm, by the way).
Light boxes vary in price, but mine is middle-of-the-road and cost around £100. If you do invest, make sure you get one that’s a certified medical device and registered with the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency). And it goes without saying that if you can get some actual sunlight from the sky into your life, then get the hell out there.
Live your best wake-up
You can also buy a different type of sunlight – the kind that wakes you up in the morning. Go big or go home: I bought one of these too. My wake-up light alarm clock emits a gradually brightening light to mimic a natural sunrise, and the best bit is the back-up noises; I like to alternate between crashing waves and bleating goats. Waking up with pseudo-natural light helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, and again, this light makes waking up nicer on a very conscious level. The alternative – waking up in the pitch black to a crap tune then being blinded when you turn the light on – is actually rubbish. Gradual light and goats, however – winning.
Make like a bird: fly south
And my final point on sunlight is that there are copious amounts of it in the southern hemisphere right now. So if it’s feasible, steal some of theirs. Not to be a braggart, but I’ll be flying out to New Zealand on Boxing Day. I know sunlight makes a massive difference to my mental health, so it makes sense to plan my holidays so that I get a shot of it when I need it most.
2. Sweat, baby, sweat
I know it’s a cliché, but exercise. And I mean regular, scheduled, high-intensity, high-sweat, ermagherd-I-look-like-a-tomato exercise. Before I nosedived last Autumn, I was happily running every week with Goodgym (amazing and lovely running + volunteering club). I was gutted when I had to give that up on account of a dodgy foot, so I tried swimming. It wasn’t for me. I poodled up and down like I was in a hotel pool in Mallorca, and eventually stopped going. I walk a lot, so I thought that kind of counted. Not really. It’s good, sure, and I need it, but it’s not the same therapeutic hit that high-intensity exercise gives. These days I go spinning. It fulfils the criteria above, plus it’s sociable and fun(ish). This is mostly down to my hilarious instructor, the babe @rachael_marie_lashley, who likes to yell words of encouragement like, “HEEYAAAA” and “REMEMBER WHAT YOU CAME HERE FOR!” I came here to feel strong and calm and sane. It works.
I’m also a cycling convert; I definitely don’t push myself as much as when I’m being yelled at, but combining exercise and daylight is a turbo-charge for your mood.
It’s not just the mini-army of endorphins in your bloodstream that exercise is good for. The high-intensity bit is important for working off adrenaline and cortisol, which if you’re anxious or stressed will be coursing through your veins as if that saber-toothed tiger is still right in front of you. Exercise is the only way you’re going to metabolise that shit.
Exercise also makes me feel strong and powerful; it’s hard to feel weak when you’re moving fast and sweating. And there’s also that meta level of knowing that you’re kicking ass, and feeling pretty proud of that.
3. Get ripped
After my pathetic arm strength at climbing left me embarrassed and googling how to do press-ups (though it was Emily, “Tuck your bum under,” who finally sorted out my technique), I stumbled across some research that found strength training significantly reduced incidences of depression. Why? They didn’t know. But after a few months of daily press-ups and tricep dipping, what I do know is, it feels good to feel strong*.
‘Feeling strong’ is a holistic feeling, it overflows from your body into your mind, and strength training in itself is a mindful activity where your focus is brought down into your body. Yoga is excellent for similar reasons. And what would a hunter-gatherer do? Probably build a house every now and then and chuck about some, I don’t know, logs. Look, I never claimed this was a scientific paper.
*Incidentally, my dad telling me I looked “a bit ripped” was probably a highlight of my life.
4. Habits = happier-ness
If something, anything, works for you – schedule it. I go spinning on Mondays and nothing gets in the way of that. I remember talking to a friend, around November last year, about how horrendous I was feeling, so she tried to help me find an exercise class. My brain just froze, I was overwhelmed by choice and fear of not knowing how ClassPass or whatever worked, and I didn’t end up booking anything. With my self-confidence shot to pieces, the thought of walking into an unfamiliar trendy fitness studio and making a tit of myself freaked me out. So this year, I made sure I had my exercise regime locked into my diary. I don’t have to think about it or make any decisions whatsoever – the absolute worst thing when your brain is a scrambled mess. I don’t even need to feel motivated. All I have to do is turn up, and as long as I keep doing that then I will be able to keep doing that, ad infinitum (did I mention I’m an optimist?).
I also volunteer weekly. I need to feel useful and that I’m giving something back to this world, and volunteering as a youth mentor with ReachOut gives me that. In summer it’s just fun, in winter it can help give me a purpose and remind me who I am. Either way, it’s there every Thursday.
The added bonus all these strategies offer, is hope. If I know what helps and I am doing those things, the hope that generates is a layer of defence in itself. And hope is a pretty magical protective shield.
And also: avoid stuff that makes you feel like shit
Sounds obvious, but auto-pilot and what-everyone-else-is-doing are powerful habit drivers. I used to get the Northern line to work every day. Every Londoner knows that it’s the absolute worst one (and the Victoria line is the best). It was awful, and when I had to take it again the other day, I stood (obviously) looking around, actually feeling quite hopeless. There are many ways to travel around London, and if it adds 20 minutes to your commute, but enough positivity to keep you balanced, then think of the time in your life you won’t be wasting feeling like crap – I’m talking entire weeks and months here. I walk 2.5 miles from Waterloo to work in the mornings and not only do I avoid the tube, I get an extra dose of sunlight (sometimes) and exercise into my day – all it costs me is an extra 15 minutes.
Invest in defence
If you know this time of year can suck the life out of you, then I would really advise throwing some cash at preventative strategies. Not only because being depressed is god-awful and might actually kill you, but because therapy, and being desperate to feel better, is expensive. If my 100 quid light box works, I will save more than that on Pret comfort food alone. Therapy costs at a minimum about £60 an hour. Living in a constant state of disorganised chaos and doing everything last minute costs money. Throw your money at defending yourself – it is not worth compromising on and will probably be cheaper in the long-run.
Keep the tribe close
One of the fundamental features of Dr. Ilardi’s Therapeutic Lifestyle Change programme is social connection and community. We’re social animals, and a sense of belonging and closeness are some of our basic human needs. So stay connected, plan meet-ups even if you don’t feel like it, and don’t spend too long in your own head before you reach out to someone. Sometimes you need saving from yourself.
And don’t forget the mindfulness apps
I of course also advocate tools such as mindfulness and meditation, and speaking to a counsellor if you need a helping leg up. There is lots more general advice in my original blog, in which I drag the ugliness of depression into the light and talk about how I found my way out – and myself – again.
So, is it working?
It’s late November, moment of truth: how am I? I would love to be able to say, “Wonderful, I bloody nailed it!” before skipping through a pile of crunchy leaves into an autumnal sunset, the end. But I can’t lie. What I can say is, “I’m actually alright.” I am keeping my head above water, high enough to keep doing the things that help and will stop me drowning. Does life feel a little bit harder? Yes. Am I waking up gripped in panic and terror at the thought of the day ahead? No. And unlike this time last year, I’m actually starting to feel better, rather than as if I’m on a downward escalator to hell and Hobnobs for dinner. I’m taking that as a win.
Look after your tribe. And be annoying about it.
This time of year, check in with people. And not just once: bug them. If you ask someone if they’re ok and they respond to everything you’re saying apart from that bit, then keep asking if they’re ok. I am very open but I still won’t tell someone how I’m feeling unless they actually ask, and if I’m feeling rubbish, not unless they really ask. We generally don’t like burdening people anyway and if you’re down, and have voices telling you you’re not worth anybody’s time, those honest feelings will take some dragging out by someone who loves you. And it’s only by dragging them out that you can take away their power and beat them down. To the people that bug me – thank you.
Trust depression like you’d trust Trump
Depression will make you feel like you’ll never feel good again and that everything is pointless. Don’t believe it, because if there is one thing I can tell you without any doubt, it’s that depression lies. I’ve beaten this bitch three times. So can you.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be a fan of Autumn though. You know it’s pretty shit when you’re about to write ‘crispy leaves’ as a redeeming feature. I like my leaves green and juicy, thanks, when nobody is raving about leaves because THERE ARE BETTER THINGS TO RAVE ABOUT.