Last week, one of my friends posted this question on social media: “Why is this lockdown harder to bear than the first?” A flood of comments appeared within minutes. “There was some novelty the first time, now it begins to grind us down,” wrote one person. “Frustration at those *still* not following the rules,” added another. One woman summed it up: “Dark. Lonely. Scared.”
January is never easy. Our mood tends to take a dip in the winter months, with sleep disturbance, lethargy and craving for high fat and high sugar foods a familiar struggle. Six percent of the population develop more severe depressive symptoms, known as SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.
January 2021, however, is particularly challenging. A new strain, a second wave, another lockdown. Feelings of entrapment, difficult work conditions and family disputes all contribute to a sense of hopelessness.
So how can we make it through this?
In the late 60s, American psychologist Martin Seligman exposed a number of dogs to electric shocks that they could not get away from. They gave up trying to escape, lay down and whined.
The repeated pain and the associated utter disempowerment resulted in depression. Luckily, when the dogs were given choices and ways to influence the situation, they all recovered fully. Humans are not so different.
The more disempowered we feel, the more we slip into depression. The way to lift our mood again: self-empowerment!
Instead of focusing on issues we cannot influence, such as the pandemic, we need to focus on smaller factors that we can control. We can control our hygiene, we can control how often we check the news. We can control when we finish decorating that spare room.
Every time we take charge of something, no matter how small, we feel better.
Approach New Year’s resolutions with caution
The need to control something can manifest itself in long lists of self-improvement goals. The more anxious we are, the higher the targets. Unfortunately, this not only creates more stress, it can also damage our self-esteem – when we inevitably fail these unrealistic targets.
Why do we fail? Well, it’s not down to a lack of willpower, it’s simple neuroscience.
When, back in the stone age, there was a shortage of food, let’s say, berries, we needed to focus much harder on trying to find the food and take much bigger risks to get it. With plenty of berries from easier sources, it’s easy to walk past a thorny bush.
However, during a shortage, we have to be willing to risk getting scratched to get to the sweet reward. In other words – if we can’t have it, we are programmed to want it more.
The same principle applies to anything that we are trying to deny ourselves. In their book ‘Intuitive Eating’, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole suggest allowing ourselves “unconditional permission to eat food, including chocolate, including French fries”, before retraining our bodies to eat what we really want, no more, no less.
This way, we can find our way back to the way we ate as babies. Have you ever tried to make a baby drink more milk than they need? It’s impossible.
We, too, can find our way back to that ability of knowing how much of something we need – be it junk food, TV or alcohol. That in itself, is true empowerment.
Find creative ways to replace your usual coping strategies
Gyms are closed, too cold to run outside? No socialising allowed? Well, using platforms such as AirBnB or Fever, you can now book online experiences such as learning to make pasta with Italian grannies, tempering chocolate with a cacao grower from Jamaica or study history with an archaeologist from Pompeii.
Therapy sessions can be accessed via video or telephone. You can book handstand classes, Japanese Taiko drumming or Yoga. Why not enjoy a virtual night out with friends by logging on simultaneously to a virtual live streamed performance of the Royal Ballet?
Expose yourself to daylight
Everyone knows, exercise and fresh air are good for our physical and mental health. But more importantly, a 2020 study by Vikas Menon et al. confirmed a link between lack of Vitamin D and depression.
In addition to this, a 2020 study by Hernàndez et al. suggests a link between hospital admissions with Covid and low Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is produced in the body when sunlight reaches our skin, so spending time outside is vital to our mental and physical health.
Yesterday I completed a test on levels of depressive symptoms with a young man, who, despite working successfully in a well-paid professional job, had experienced not only burnout but also a complete loss of hope before he allowed himself to set up therapy.
‘Can you remember how much worse I was before we did this?’ he said. And then he added the sentence I hear most often in my practice: ‘I wish I had done this sooner.’
This winter, too, shall pass. And, with the words of Desmond Tutu: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
Diana Armstrong, Psychologist at Roodlane Medical, HCA Primary Care