The period between late September – end of February is the most dreaded time of the year for me. This coincides with the busiest, most stressful time at work and I am also a sufferer of winter blues (in England, it is not unusual that I won’t see the sun come out for weeks!) and everything just looks so sad, empty and grotty.
I experienced one of the most depressing times of my life last year during this very same period therefore this year I made it my mission to proactively anticipate and prepare for the challenges of this season. My circumstances have not changed. Yet, I am feeling much better than last year at this time, and nowhere as close to just wanting crawl into a hole. I have decided to write a post to share my top tips about how to survive – and even thrive – during these ‘rainy days’.
And most importantly, I also want to be an ambassador for speaking up openly about mental health. Many people still associate having problems in this department with a stigma or something to fear. Fortunately, in many workplaces and communities there has been a positive shift about this (here in the UK at least) and I can call myself quite lucky that I work for a company which started to encourage people to speak up openly about these issues and is more actively supporting those who need it the most.
- Back to nature
I guess I can call myself lucky because despite my current injury, I can still run some and do all kinds of exercises that do not aggrevate this condition (this deserves a separate post in itself). Therefore I do whatever I can to make exercising a daily priority because it helps me distress massively, completely switch off and have a good sweat (literally flushing out the toxins from my body caused by stress).
It particularly helps to do something outdoors when the sun does decide to come out in every blue moon, but even if it doesn’t, spending at least one hour in some fresh, crisp air always make me feel like a different person, I feel like I have been ‘reborn’ after a good walk or run in a beautiful place. It is especially important to get some ‘sun’light during the winter months as sunshine has certain ingredients that stimulate those feel good chemicals in the brain.
My favourite places include Windsor Great Park, Black Park, Hughenden, Richmond Park and Bushy Park, the Marlow & Henley Riverside, the canalside in Watford.
- Dare to say ‘no’
It is so easy to overcommit and then burn out and get (literally) ill. Slow down, be very selective and protective about what you spend your time on, ask yourself ‘does this need to be done now or can it wait until tomorrow’, ‘can I outsource this task’, ‘what is the worst thing that can happen if I don’t do it at all’. And I mean this for every area of your life – work, family, socials, physical training etc. Decide what is or who is really important in your life and if doing certain things will benefit you/others etc. Everything else can take a back seat.
- Practice the yoga mindset
What I love about yoga is that it is an art form that teaches us that the mind-body-spirit trinity work in unison rather than separately from each other. For example, if the spirit suffers, the body is likely to suffer, too (e.g. think about how many illnesses are stress-related) and vica-versa (e.g. if I am injured and cannot exercise freely, I get depressed).
Yoga also teaches us that it is not about the destination (how quickly you can turn yourself into a pretzel with your feet around your neck) but about the journey of getting there, and actually enjoying and making the most of that journey rather than forcing ourselves so hard to be the same as everyone else. It teaches respect for our bodies and once we have achieved that, it leads to self-acceptance and eventually that’s how progress is made. I find that a good yoga or Body Balance session can completely switch my mind off from the daily worries and enables me to just focus on the ‘here and now’ – just ‘be’ in the moment.
There are many different schools and variations of yoga out there, my current favourite teachers are Colleen Saidman-Yee and Rodney Yee. I love their inspirational teaching, the soothing tone of their voice and the fact that they are not using any disturbing chanting or not making a religion out of it which is not my cup of tea.
- Fill your mind with relaxing sounds
I have found some really good mobile phone apps that play relaxing sounds (natural and instrumental music). Just putting this on for a short while every day e.g. whilst reading in bed/taking a shower with dimmed lights/doing my physiotherapy routine help me arrive at a calmer place. I especially love natural sounds that I can mix and match together (night owls, chicadas, camp fire, birds in the forest, raindrops on the roof etc.), depending on my mood or the effect I want to achieve. My current favourite app for this is Relax Melodies. They allow you to download a lot of sounds for free and if you are prepared to pay just a few quid (the cost of a Costa coffee), you can gain access to their full sound library.
- Unleash your creative self
I have very recently re-discovered the joy and contentment of colouring. As a child, I took great delight in drawing, painting and crafts – all these things have somehow got lost in the process of ‘growing up’. Apparently, adult colouring books are the new phenomenon that have swept across the globe over the past couple of months. After carefully researching different artists, I settled for Joanna Basford as my favourite colouring book designer. Her intricate and mysterious drawings completely pull me into a different world, where new adventures await and a universe that just waits for me to inject some colour. Check out the Secret Garden, Lost Ocean and Enchanted Forest books she designed. This is also a good way for me to channel my obsession for running into something else whilst I am recovering from my injury and cannot run as much as I want to. So far this has proven to be quite therapeutic and relaxing.
Whenever I start a new project, I cannot just do it half-heartedly. So I have invested into some artist quality pencils to achieve the best effects (if this is something you want to get into, check out the Faber Castell Polychromos and Primsmacolour Premier brands) and have been teaching myself to use different techniques to make the pictures the nicest possible (Youtube has many great videos for this). Just the simple act of colouring pictures without any higher purpose other than just creating something beautiful can give me a release from the pressures of always having to do things in certain ways and often mechanically (my job involves being bound by lots of procedures, rules and legislation).
- Cats Pets
In my case, this particularly means cats. It has now scientifically been proven as well that spending time on simply just looking at cat videos or photos can increase feelings of calm and happiness. My husband and I are so blessed to have two adorable Siberian Forest pussycats. I don’t know how this is possible but I grow to love Holly and Lydia more and more every day. The naughty pranks they pull off daily and their cute little mannerisms that make them so different from each other amaze me every time and I just can’t have enough pussycat time in my life! When I play with them, watch them, cuddle them, look after them, I can completely forget about all the cr*p I am dealing with and I simply just feel so happy. Sometimes all I need is some ‘Holly time’ – whenever she feels I have been spending too much time staring at my laptop at home, she jumps on my lap and demands lots of cuddles and love by chirruping, purring and meowing at me. She knows best that it is just what I needed myself, too!
I can’t believe that there was ever a time when I did not want a cat at all. So don’t hold back and get that little munchkin you have always wanted. Your life will change for the better.
- Herbal remedies
At this time of the year I do need a bit of extra help to balance my mood, tackle stress, and help me sleep well. I am not advocating going to the doctor and getting anti-depressants unless you really need them (doctors are way too quick to prescribe meds that people actually do not necessarily need and more often, people just want to go on meds to tackle the symptoms instead of wanting to address the root cause that is causing them to feel so stressed – working in HR, I see a lot of these things happen).
However, I am all for utilising herbal remedies and finding natural ways. The best products I have successfully used so far are Valeriana Relax (it has hop, valerian and passion flower in it) and Klosterfrau (this latter one has at least a dozen herbs in it). I also drink a lot of tea with lemon balm. The main thing to be aware of with these relaxants is that some products have ingredients in them that interfere with the contraceptive pill (such as St. John’s Wort, Echinacea etc.) or your ability to stay sharp and concentrate so always read the label very carefully and make your decision accordingly!
- Balance physical training
When I was going through such a bad patch at work last year, I carried on with my training and running at the same high intensity. I actually scored a new PB time in a half marathon and I was faster than ever. I naively thought that I was invincible and that I could just carry on with everything like normal.
It was only a matter of time that I broke down physically after doing the Valencia Marathon and found myself on the bench for 3 months.
So what I have learnt from this is that even though you can push yourself to your physical limits, it may not be a good idea to do so. Emotional and mental stress/fatigue can have an adverse effect on what your physical body can withstand, even if you are super fit.
So during this time of the year, I focus more on the enjoyment of exercising rather than trying to achieve strict goals. I try to put the least amount of pressure on myself by not competing during this time and by changing my objectives – e.g. I go for consistency/frequency rather than speed or distance. I do lower intensity stuff and focus on flexibility and core strength. And I know my body will thank me for it many-fold later.
- Do not accept that feeling low/overwhelmed/stressed out is ‘just how things are at the moment’
One of the things that I could have done differently last year at work is to tell my manager honestly about how I was really feeling during year end and that I would have appreciated a lot more support with my workload. Unfortunately, I thought that I was the only one struggling and I was afraid that telling her about it would undermine my carefully built up image at work and put me into an unwanted limelight. The bottom line is, if you don’t speak up, don’t expect that people will know how cr*p you are feeling and that things desperately need to change. You are not a machine and you have the right to be supported. They are not mind readers and being very busy themselves, they will not necessarily pick up on the early warning signs of colleagues coming close to having a nervous breakdown. Would you believe it that we actually need to run workshops for managers to teach them how to look out for and recognise these warning signs so that they can offer support.
Fortunately, this year we have a new team leader who having gone through a similar experience herself last year has been very proactive about making sure that we are not too overloaded/overstressed at year end, so she is acting as a protective buffer between us and our stakeholders we support.
There was one time in my life when I felt things were not going to change for the better at work and therefore I resigned only after 5 months. It was an extremely toxic environment and no matter how hard and how well I worked, I kept being scrutinised for every small detail in a ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ way, everything was measured by numbers, I was plugged into a bloomin’ phone all day which dictated when I could go to the loo or have a lunchbreak (if at all – sometimes out of the 30 minutes that I had for the whole day, 15 minutes was spent with queuing up at the only single microwave they provided for hundreds of people in the building). No wonder that I burned out so quickly. Sometimes you need to be brutally honest with yourself and say ‘this is not for me’ and walk away for your own sanity’s sake or be proud but be consumed.
- Let your loved ones know about how your are feeling
The people you matter to the most want to know what is going on in your life and how they can support you. Engage with them, let them into your world, and do not take your bad mood out on them because it is not fair on them. They have the right to know why you are not happy, why you are being grumpy, that something is bothering you etc. – People automatically tend to think that it is their fault that you are feeling that way.
Make the effort to not just talk to them about your issues, the negatives, but also the good things – being sour, stressed out all the time will inevitably take its toll on any relationship. Count your blessings together daily, be partners on this journey (like on any others), seek out some fun, and you will see the light at the end of the tunnel sooner than you may think.
So I guess that’s all – I know there is no magic formula that can help everyone but the above methods have definitely helped me build more resilience when the going got tough.