The 3rd Monday of the year has been found to be “Blue Monday”, the day when people most depressed, uncertain if the future and even hopeless. It may be pseudoscience but I think people are feeling pretty down this year. Some people find themselves in debt after Christmas, struggling towards the next payday, weather in the northern hemisphere is pretty bleak and this year in particularly, the Covid-19 pandemic has been dragging on just a bit!
I just had to respond with a blog about how we can manage this period of the year and learn some coping strategies that will benefit us for the rest of the year!
5 top tips:
- Move everyday—some form of exercise whether it’s yoga or walk or a HIIT workout, moving your body is awesome for all sorts of reasons. It can be a good distraction, a time to think, or a time for mindfulness. It releases endorphins, the feel good hormone. You can get the whole family involved too!
- Creativity—whether it’s poetry, pottery or a building a shed, being able to say “I made this” with a sense of accomplishment boosts even the lowest mood. Turning your hand to something new or picking up an old skill taps into a part of the brain that we don’t use everyday. Something we can all do is listen to music, while it’s not building or making anything it taps into an expressive part of the brain and can be incredibly powerful.
- Writing—it’s been found that even just writing about what you’ve been doing each day can help build memories. For some people, writing can be a way of expressing themselves if they find it difficult to talk about how they’re feeling. If you pick up and pen and don’t know what to write, perhaps start with things you’ve done or things you can see, hear or smell, then try writing some about how you feel, it doesn’t have to make sense initially but you’ll soon get the hang of it!
- Talking—this is an incredibly beneficial coping strategy. From talk to your a pet to choosing to take up personal therapy or anything in between. It’s important if you live alone to keep in contact—we’re incredibly fortunate with the range of technology (text, email, various video call options or good old fashioned phone call) these days we just need to use it!
- Help others—looking after a pet or even a plant can really improve your mood and help your self esteem. Feeling depressed can make all your thoughts turn inward but making yourself look outward can bring a different perspective to your problems. It doesn’t have to be huge but once you start you might feel you want to do more and more!
A few simply dos and don’ts
- Do express your emotions in a health way—have a good cry if you need to, punch a cushion, scream if it helps, these are all fine. Make sure you can differentiate between healthy and unhealth expressions of emotion.
- Don’t turn to addictive behaviours—alcohol may be “socially acceptable” and may “feel nice” but it’s just a way of numbing your feelings and it’s ultimately helpful. Equally, turning to food or anything else you know is your usual coping habit is a way of pushing away your feelings. A more healthy way of coping is to find ways of being able to manage your feelings in the moment such as breathing techniques, talking or writing about them or try mindfulness. (It’s fine to have a drink but just ask yourself if you’re drinking to escape stress/feelings etc?)
- Do limit time spent reading/watching news about Covid-19—make sure you know the pertinent information but beyond that don’t get sucked into the unhealthy political mud slinging that the media seem to enjoy.
- Don’t compare your life to other people’s! You don’t see what goes on behind closed doors. Don’t endlessly scroll through social media, limit your time on social media if you can. Remember that what other people post is a highly edited version of their life and doesn’t reflect their reality. Try to only follow people or pages that bring you happiness (hide, mute or unfollow everything else—it really is that simple!).
- Do remember you’re mental, physical and spiritual health are all linked, if you don’t look after one, the others will suffer. Doing something physical, like going for a walk or having a bath will do just as good for your mental health as it will for your physical health. If you didn’t think you had a faith but this pandemic has got you asking questions like “why would God do such a cruel thing?” perhaps it’s time to find an Alpha or Puzzling Questions course (or similar) and ask these questions. It’s ok to get angry at God, he can take it. Ask someone you know goes to church or contact your local church (or other faith community) online, they’re all doing far more online than they used to!
If you think your low mood is more than feeling a bit blue and these tips are not going to be enough, please seek professional support. It’s important to get support early.
A survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Society showed that since being forced to stay isolated and inside their homes, 82% of people with dementia saw a deterioration in symptoms.
But it’s not just those already showing memory problems who’re struggling. Many of us are forgetting to buy milk, to write that email (again…) or that word that’s on the tip of your tongue!
There are different types of memory, research is helping us to understand how the constraint have impacted us.
- Loneliness has had the biggest impact on people’s mood—feeling depressed is known to have an impact on memory
- Lack of social interactions—repetition of stories helps consolidate memories of events (episodic memories). Watercooler moments can mean we talk to dozens of people in day, these aren’t happening with people furloughed or working from home. As big events have been cancelled, even when we have chatted with friends and family we’ve had fewer stories to tell meaning we’re not exercising out episodic memory.
- People have been feeling generally more anxious and there’s more uncertainty. This has been worst for young people, people living on low incomes, people in urban areas and those with children.
- When there’s less variety in our lives and lack of memory cues—it’s hard to differentiate one day from the next and we simply can’t remember what we’ve done! When all your meetings are in front of the same screen, they’re all the same, there’s no way to tag your memory. In the office you might walk passed the lift where you had a conversation and it reminds you to email someone or you’ll drive by the petrol station on your commute home and it’ll remind you of the milk you need to buy.
- Disturbed sleep due to lack of stimulation and worrying about the pandemic is causing fatigue. The brain, like any organ needs us to be fit and healthy, poor sleep, lack or exercise and poor sleep, and it’s functioning less well.
- Not going out and about and finding our way around means the size of our hippocampus is decreasing (the seahorse shaped structure in the brain involved in learning and memory)—it’s a use it or lose it scenario! Research has found London cab drivers have an incredibly large hippocampus!
But there is good news—there are things we can do to stimulate our brains again!
- Go for a walk each day, especially along unfamiliar streets.
- Turn the videocall into a phone call and go for a walk instead of sitting in front of the computer.
- Make sure the weekend is different from the weekdays or make sure you have specified rest days that are noticeably different.
- Do something creative and new and tell someone about it afterwards.
- Deliberately reflect on your day, even in a diary can help. Remembering what you did and recounting it exercises your brain.
- Don’t be ashamed of using alarms and alerts on your phone, these are helpful cues for your brain.
- If trying to remember a list of items, for example a shopping list, imagine yourself in the aisle in the shop actually picking up the items.
- To fight fatigue, good sleep hygiene is best for a good night’s sleep—no caffeine or sugar before bed, sleep in a dark cool room and make sure you’ve had fresh air and/or exercise everyday.
If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, it’s important to get the right support. Contact your GP or speak to a counsellor or therapist. If you’re finding it difficult to cope, talking about it will be the best thing you can do.
I write blogs to share my experiences. When a psychiatrist diagnoses depression, they’re looking for a specific set of symptoms described in the DSM V or the ICD 11 all or most of the time over an extended period:
- Depressed mood
- Diminished interest or pleasure in activities
- Decrease or increase in appetite
- Subjective slowing down of thought and movement
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate and indecisiveness
- Thoughts of death, suicidal ideation without a specific plan, attempted suicide or planned for suicide.
I understand the need to be able to diagnose in this way but this is not how people experience depression. I’m writing this blog to give some insight to what it’s really like to be inside the mind of someone struggling with symptoms of depression.
In reality, people experience the following, jumbled and apparently nonsensical feelings:
- I don’t want to make a fuss but I’m worried about how I feel
- I feel sad, frustrated, angry, scared and numb at the same time
- Sometimes I feel happy and then I feel confused and guilty
- I feel lethargic and then I beat myself up for being lazy
- I cry about everything and nothing but then sometimes I can’t cry when someone tells me something sad
- I feel completely exhausted, during the day all I want to do is sleep then at night, I can’t sleep, I just lie awake
- I’m not interested in going out, I won’t enjoy it and I have nothing interesting to say so what’s the point?
- I don’t have any friends and I can understand why, I wouldn’t want to be my friend
- I just want this pain to stop, it’s a pain like no other
- I feel like I’m falling down a black hole, like my life is meaningless, is there any point?
- I’m scared I’m going to lose my job, I just get a feeling I’m doing it all wrong
- I can’t seem to do anything right
- My life is fine, I should be happy but I feel like everything is falling apart
- Life feels like a slog, I don’t think there’s any point in going on
- I notice other people laughing and realise I’m not but the next day I can laugh and I don’t know what’s different
- I wish I could go to sleep and not wake up
It’s the job of the GP or psychiatrist to take these experiences and attempt to make sense of them to see if a diagnosis of depression fits. A diagnosis is important so that appropriate support and treatment can be given. Symptoms of anxiety, psychosis, personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders or other psychiatric conditions overlap so it’s important to understand what the symptoms are in order to offer the right support.
I always like to offer some hope in my blogs. I’m living proof that from the darkest times, if you surround yourself with the right people, do whatever it takes (therapy, counselling, medication) it may not be easy or simple but recovery is possible.