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Photography Ashley Armitage, via @ladyist

How to protect your mental health throughout the winter lockdown

While lockdown itself isn’t a new experience, being stuck indoors through the colder and darker months brings with it new difficulties

I’ve become retired to the idea that, in our COVID-19 era, uncertainty has become our only certainty. That said, it doesn’t sit well with me. An unashamed reader of self-help, I spend much of my leisure time searching for solutions; desperate to avoid the pain of the uncertainties and unknowns of life – failure, heartbreak, death, loss. And yet, even equipped with the wisdoms of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists – the consensus of all that uncertainty really is life’s inevitable – it doesn’t stop the crushing pain when things don’t go according to my ever optimistic plans. Like many of us, I hung onto optimism, that things would be over soon, the hope it wouldn’t have to happen again. And yet, seven months after our first national lockdown, the UK is heading back into isolation. 

While the impacts of lockdown vary widely, dependent on people’s pre-existing wellbeing and socio-economic circumstances (why we should not be thinking about this as a pandemic but instead as a syndemic), researchers suggest the mental health impact of pandemic is going to be “profound and long-lasting”. New research is consistent in showing increases in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even suicidal ideation which peaked during the lockdown in spring. With the effects of the first lockdown on income, health, and relationships still taking its toll on people’s lives, the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as well as the uncertainty about the festive season has led experts to suggest that our winter lockdown is going to be even worse than the first one, taking its toll on our collective mental health.

While the stress of the first lockdown was overwhelming, it was also in some ways energising, with many of us using our anxieties constructively. “During the first lockdown we could put our stress to good use to adapt and change quickly to the new situation,” explains Laura Sandelson, a London-based psychotherapist and supervisor. While Sandleson explains nothing about the terms of lockdown is necessarily new this time, the unsettling nature of our current circumstances as well as the return to confinement may be triggering for the psychologically vulnerable. “Those with anxiety and OCD tendencies may experience a rise in negative rumination and compulsive behaviours in a desperate attempt to seize back some sort of control,” Sandelson continues. “Those who have suffered from depression may feel the return of some of that with the immense loss and grief that is around everywhere.” 

Indeed, feelings of loss and grief may also feed feelings of hopelessness and fear as the country prepares for its second lockdown of 2020. While less than ideal, Sandelson argues we had far more mental capacity to deal with the sudden change in the first lockdown, with the relative novelty of the pandemic enabling us to come together, support one another and take things with good will.

As I wrote about both the physical and mental impact of the lockdown back in March, it was undeniably tough; the uncertainty inducing crippling anxieties, fear, and worry. But with hindsight it felt like those afforded the privilege, were able to use the time to re-connect and re-establish priorities. Albeit in the virtual realm, I found myself connecting with friends and family in new, creative and more meaningful ways. I re-assessed my life values and ambitions. I’ve reflected on the amount of time I’ve spent travelling into office spaces I find claustrophobic and stressful for jobs I’ve found pointless, spending vast amounts of money in the pursuit of ‘fitness’ on overpriced gym classes and questioning why, as a born and bred Londoner, anyone would want to live in a city as polluted, expensive, and unequal as it.

Musician Lizzie explains that being a self-employed musician, COVID-19 has impacted her work a lot. “Everything has come to a standstill and I do really miss live music”, she says, but being able to create music at home has been a valuable form of therapy. Living with someone who has a pre-existing lung disease, with a fatal risk of contracting the virus, has not only meant months of shielding but high anxiety too. “At the beginning it was pretty severe and my chest was very tight.” But after speaking with others about her mental health, she felt a sense of commaradie and shared experience, “practically everyone in the world is anxious these days due to COVID”. 

Sophia, who has Borderline Personality Disorder, agrees. While the pandemic has been enormously challenging for her overarchingly, having undergone a severe mental breakdown resulting in homelessness in the wake of COVID-19, she explains the lockdown back in March actually gave her an opportunity to reflect and connect with others. “With weather on our side, lockdown number one gave me a chance to recover and also gave me hope that now the world somewhat understands my difficulties and the needs of people who have significant mental health issues that impact daily life,” she says. 

As we enter a winter lockdown, things are different. As Sandelson notes: “These are dark days and dark times.” The cooling temperatures and dimming light set against the backdrop of this second lockdown could not feel any more symbolic of the looming state of affairs. “With the days shorter now, we are in different territory to March,” Sandelson explains, spring had sprung with bright sun giving us all a sense of energy and hope. While the darkness at this time of the year is usually set against the anticipation and joy of the festive season, with that in doubt, many are at risk of feeling very low. “There is nothing to hang onto now to propel us forward, to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“With the days shorter now, we are in different territory to March. There is nothing to hang onto now to propel us forward, to see the light at the end of the tunnel” – Laura Sandelson, psychotherapist

This sentiment is psychologically characterised by the advent of SAD, which experts warn will impact us worse this year due to lockdown. SAD is an intermittent depression which can be triggered by changes of weather, more typically seen in the winter. “It is often characterised by low mood and increased lethargy, sleeping more than usual and sometimes feeling you can’t be bothered to do much of anything.” While Sandelson is optimistic that those of us suffering from SAD, but working from home may actually benefit from “permitted hibernation” – leaning into sleep and rest without the usual guilt – she warns lockdown may also deepen this depression. In the absence of mood-lifting opportunities, such as going out to eat or drink, seeing friends and family, or changing routines, SAD sufferers are at risk of struggling. While she feels prepared for this lockdown, unlike in March, Lizzie admits that the lack of sun and shorter days has already affected her SAD.

I have also already found myself particularly attuned to season-induced psychological shifts. Having been lucky enough to get abroad in September, I quarantined on my return to the UK, and with murmur of the winter lockdown in the background, was rather alarmed by the quick onset of my depressive symptoms. The optimism I experienced at the height of summer was lost, and replaced with a low level angst about the future. Will my friends stay employed over the next few months? If I start dating now, could it actually flourish into a relationship? Will I actually, ever, be able to hug my granny again?

Of course, the painful paradox of uncertainty now our only certainty is that anxiety has become our permanent state. Research shows rates of anxiety have globally skyrocketed since March, and while we were able to harness this nervous energy productively back then, as our positivity reserves diminish, so too does our capacity to handle fears about our futures. 

“Plans have been upended and decision-making put on ice. What freedom we recovered in the summer has been reversed,” says Sandelson, explaining that we now all left in a state of anxiety, confusion and panic. “This time, I am a lot more anxious and have even started having panic attacks since the announcement,” Sophia tells me, having been re-housed to a permanent home, but unable to move in, or do any work, she feels her life and recovery are, dishearteningly, “back on hold”. 

So, with lives halted during these winter months, what can we do to deal with our overwhelming emotions? At the beginning of October, I rushed to buy Vitamin D supplements, implemented 6am morning yoga, and re-ignited my running rituals in a bid to promote endorphins and prevent any further depressive thoughts. It seems to be working so far, but I’m certain there is no quick Goop-like wellbeing fix. 

“Lean on those closest to you and let them lean on you. Express what you need and when you need it and remember this is the time for tolerance and space of the other” – Laura Sandelson, psychotherapist

Sandelson recommends healthy avoidance or what she calls “mental hibernation” during this time. Be sure to “detach from things that bring you down” but not at the expense of connection with friends and family. “Lean on those closest to you and let them lean on you. Express what you need and when you need it and remember this is the time for tolerance and space of the other.” 

She also suggests getting outdoors and finding life wherever we can. “The beautiful autumn colours remind us of the constancy in nature” Sandelson explains “birdsong can lift even the hardest of hearts; and laughter, so necessary to connect with joy and the lighter side of life, especially in these dark times.” The government has not (yet) imposed a limit on how often we can exercise, so get outside, rain or shine, to move your body and clear your mind. Research shows it works wonders to improve our physical and mental wellbeing. 

There is no one simple mental health solution to the problems we face. But we may be reminded, as all of my self-help reading has, many of the answers lie in ourselves. “You’re probably more resilient and tolerant than you know,” Sandelson states, explaining that we would benefit from being kinder, more grateful and compassionate towards ourselves. This is not a time for grand ambitions but instead for taking a step back and nurturing ourselves. “This too, shall pass. We will get through it and life, maybe not quite as we knew it, shall return.”

If you are in the UK and are having suicidal thoughts, or suffering from anxiety or depression, you can contact Samaritans on 116 123. If you’re in the US, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255