Four years after I stopped being treated for depression, I developed Seasonal Affective Disorder. Thanks brain, you massive tool.
SAD is a depressive disorder that can happen in winter (minimal sunlight) or in summer (increasing heat and humidity). I tried a lightbox, but it didn’t work for me, so I spent that first winter panicking that I was getting seriously ill again, and eating a lot of Snickers.
According to the mental-health charity Mind, one in 10 people in northern Europe experiences SAD symptoms, ranging from overeating (lovely, comforting carbs) to fatigue, depression and panic attacks. It’s more common in women than men, and young people are at higher risk of winter SAD than older adults.
On a really bad day, I can tell what the weather is like before opening the curtains. There’s a thickness like being swaddled in ear muffs. My capacity for thought plummets, and getting home from work is exhausting. I take plenty of vitamin D, but it doesn’t stave off the worst.
A stroll through St James’s Park, watching the gardeners prepare for spring, has given me the same feeling I used to get running around Brockwell Park, like I’m moving with, rather than behind, the world
I did manage to skip it, once. I’d started walking to work to combat brain fog, and ended up confounding pretty much everyone I knew, including me, by running the 2014 London Marathon. I found that a responsibility to something huge – in this case, raising cash for a charity I deeply cared for – was an amazing pull. Somehow I was out at 7.30am on Christmas Day.
Without that challenge, even the idea of putting on trainers feels exhausting. Popular refrains in my mind include “I’m not worth exercise,” “It’s too much effort” and “Far better to sit listlessly in front of Netflix and Twitter, achieving sod all beyond an increasing fretfulness.”
I’ve had SAD for long enough now to know that these thoughts are not real. If exercise makes you feel better, work around your brain spiders. My running is like watching a half-folded-up clothes horse moving extremely slowly, but still, the joy of achieving something is huge.
So I trick my brain by doubling things up. I have to be dressed for work, clearly, so I try and walk to the office. That’s three miles, with a gorgeous final stroll through St James’s Park. Watching the gardeners prepare for spring has given me the same feeling I used to get running around Brockwell Park, like I’m moving with, rather than behind, the world. That disappears when you’re fogged up.
If I’m working from home, a short burst of exercise gives me the shove I need to get out after my shift. I’d bought a Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred DVD ages ago after a friend raved about it on her Instagram. At 20 minutes, it’s the perfect stealth attack for the nervous exerciser so, this year, I actually opened it. I’m always barefoot, sometimes in my pyjama bottoms. This morning I did it in a pair of my husband’s pants. Dumbbells? Butter beans. Sports bra? Essential and bought (new) off eBay to avoid the shops. But oh! That achievement! And you can do it by rolling out of bed.
Buying a DVD can essentially mean you’ve forked out for a new coaster if you don’t use it, so YouTube is full of short workouts that deliver. A friend is devoted to its abs workouts (eight minutes, tops), and there are terrifying things you can do with chairs in 10 minutes if your knees are stronger than mine. I love the dance workouts, largely because they remind me of when I learned the Single Ladies routine alongside an 80-year-old woman in a bandanna and her two daughters at a Women’s Institute evening.
If you really can’t handle a gym bunny shouting “Yeah!” and something about pushing your bum out, try the Superhero app (£2.29) from Six to Start. Like their excellent running app, Zombies, Run!, Superhero is a plot-based game where you unlock new episodes and rewards by completing exercise tasks. My reps go down drastically during tough moves, but workouts are short and sharp, and give you that sense of something well done. And, when it’s all you can do to dress yourself, sometimes that’s what you need. If you have SAD, good luck. We’ll get through this. We always do.