I’ve been on the fence for a long time on whether or not this is something I want to share with the world (especially potential clients who might decide I’m not up to the task at hand, and colleagues who might start to see me as unreliable) but I think mental illness is an important subject to talk about.
By talking about it, we can hopefully reduce the stigma around it. When no one talks, people suffer in isolation, thinking that everyone else is just fine – when in fact they, too, are looking around wondering why everyone else is okay and they’re not. And, of course, by talking about it we can share ideas that might help.
I suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder
Ironically shortened to SAD, this is a medically recognised form of depression that only happens at a certain time of year, normally during the winter months, though it can affect people in other seasons, too.
It’s surprisingly common in countries like the UK because of the drastic change in seasons, especially in terms of hours of daylight. I didn’t suffer with SAD at all while I was travelling through Europe last year because I stuck to warmer and sunnier countries during the autumn. It wasn’t until I came back to the UK and winter fully hit me that I had a short bout. This year, it’s worse because I’ve not been galavanting around Croatia and Spain in the sunshine.
There are various symptoms, but these are usually mine:
- A general lack of energy for everyday tasks. (Brushing my teeth? Urg. So pointless.)
- Lack of concentration. (My other half was trying to explain his tax situation to me. All I could do was shake my head and shrug.)
- Sleep problems. (I’m a very bad sleeper at the best of times, but the last two nights I’ve slept for over ten hours. And I still feel tired.)
- Feeling low, tearful and guilty. (My other half likes to make me watch my favourite childhood films during times like this because he enjoys watching me cry. I’m kidding. Kind of. He knows it’s good for me to let it out.)
This time around I’ve also been experiencing very blurry vision, which feels related to tiredness, even though I’m sleeping more. For more information on SAD and a fuller list of symptoms, take a look at the Mind website.
So how do I deal with all this?
Obviously life doesn’t grind to a halt. My business certainly doesn’t, either. And truthfully? Grinding to a halt is often the worst thing I can do … It’s okay for a short time, but if I stop for too long my symptoms just get worse. Here’s what I do.
Take a sick day when I need it
When I feel particularly bad, it’s unproductive to push through it and try to carry on as normal because I’ll inevitably just make myself feel worse. Since I run my own business and don’t get paid for sick days, it’s tempting to push through illness. But I never do this. Instead, I try to make sure that my deadlines are flexible enough and my cashflow is healthy enough to accommodate a day or two away from my business if I need it. Being mentally unwell is just as legitimate as being physically unwell. Both affect my work. Taking a day off to focus on recovering is always best in the long run – and I don’t think it’s fair for me to work on client projects when I’m unwell because I know I won’t be doing my best work.
Wash my face, brush my teeth and get dressed
Yes, I know that working in your pyjamas is seen as a perk of working from home, but I always feel crappy if I do this. Even when I’m feeling super low, the first thing I muster the energy to do is wash my face (I’m currently using a cleanser called Angels on Bare Skin by Lush, which makes my skin feel sooooo good), brush my teeth and get dressed. If I’m feeling super unmotivated, this acts as an instant ‘win’ for me and can give me the motivation to keep going.
Use a lightbox
I bought a lightbox a couple of years ago, and it definitely helps me. These are specially designed lamps that contain very bright white fluorescent lights, approximately ten times the brightness of a normal household lamp. The idea is that the lightbox mimics natural outdoor light, which triggers the release of chemicals in the brain that combat the low, foggy feeling of SAD. Natural daylight is better, but the box is useful for short, dark days – of which there are a lot during an English winter. I’m sitting in front of my lightbox right now.
Get outside – preferably in nature
This really, really helps. Even when I’m not suffering from SAD, I start to feel like a cooped-up animal if I haven’t been outside at least once during the day. Any form of exercise is known to boost your mood, and walking counts. Being in a more natural setting is so much more peaceful than being surrounded by concrete, traffic and crowds. Luckily for me, I live near a river. At the moment, I’ve been walking along the river during my lunch break – looking at all the happy little duckies – to my local Waitrose where I pick up supplies for dinner a free latte.
Eat good things
When it comes to food, I have a very low level of self-control. Seriously, I can’t have biscuits in the house because I WILL EAT THEM ALL. In one go. Not even joking. It’s embarrassing. When I’m feeling tired, I always reach for the junk food. But then I feel worse – obviously. So I try to make the effort to eat well. I always have scrambled eggs or muesli for breakfast, soup or a sandwich for lunch, and most of the time I cook dinner from scratch. Lately most of my dinners have been ‘meat + veg + pesto-pasta/sweet potato’. Chicken, salad, pesto-pasta. Steak, corn-on-the-cob, tender stem broccoli, baked sweet potato. That kind of thing. One of my favourite meals is beef stew, but my other half doesn’t like it much. I do the cooking, though, so he can suck it. Mwa ha.
Baths are possibly one of my most favourite things in all the world. Last year, we stayed in very few places that had a bath and it was possibly the worst thing about travelling. Having a long soak (preferably with a few drops of bath oil or some bubbles) while reading is often the highlight of my day. I don’t care if that makes me sound like I have no life. For me, a bath eases my muscles and joints, acts as a divider to the day and a trigger that I’ll be going to bed soon, and gives me time and space to enjoy some proper me-time. I do most of my reading in the bath, too, which is also good for the mind. The downside of this is that I have a lot of crinkled paperbacks. I’ve yet to drop my Kindle in the bath, though.
A small act can have a big effect
Now that I’ve written this post, most of this stuff seems fairly darn obvious. Perhaps that’s a good thing. It shows that really we know what’s good for us, what makes us feel better. Then it comes down to making the time and effort to do these things. That’s probably the hardest part.
Working things into my routine definitely helps. When I get up, it doesn’t take a lot of time to wash my face, brush my teeth and get dressed. By combining a walk outside with picking up food for dinner, I’m more likely to cook something healthy that evening. And no one needs to tell me twice to have a bath, because I love it. Which obviously helps, too.
I’m by no means suggesting that the key to happiness and overcoming mental illness requires just a bit of effort. When you’re suffering badly, lifting your head from the pillow can feel like too much. But for me, when I’m feeling low, these things really help. And by reminding myself that once I’ve done these things I will feel a little better helps me muster the motivation to do them.
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