Dark Days

We all tend to feel differently based on the weather outside. If it’s a sunny day, we feel more energized and optimistic. On a rainier day and during the darker months of the year, we may feel more dreary, demotivated or downright depressed. When these emotional states make you feel like a completely different person, it may be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder and the need for support.

Seasonal Affective Disorder tends to set in as we head into the darker, winter months when we have less exposure to sunlight. Not everyone is affected by this in the same way, but Seasonal Affective Disorder does seem to have a familial component with approximately 15% of sufferers having immediate family members experiencing the same issues.

What are some of the symptoms?
• sleeping more, or having trouble getting a good night’s sleep
• fatigue, and difficulty carrying out daily tasks
• appetite change, particularly more cravings for sugary and starchy foods
• weight gain
• feeling sad, guilty and lacking confidence
• feeling hopeless
• irritability and feelings of stress
• avoiding people or activities, including physical contact

Tips to Ease Your Winter SAD Symptoms:
• Spend more time outdoors during the day being active. Physical activity relieves stress, builds energy and increases both your physical and mental well-being and resilience. Try a noon-hour walk!
• Arrange the spaces you spend time in to maximize sunlight exposure, like keeping blinds open and moving furniture so you sit near a window.
• Trim tree branches or hedges that may be blocking some of the light from getting into your home.
• Install skylights and add lamps.
• Try to resist the carbohydrate and sleep cravings that come with SAD. Focus on balanced meals and snacks filled with vegetables, fruit, protein and whole grain foods. Try to create a sleep routine of 8 or 9 hours per night.

For some people, more significant support is needed. Don’t diagnose yourself—speak to your doctor or visit the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division www.cmha.bc.ca or call 1-800-555-8222 (toll-free in BC) or 604-688-3234 (in Greater Vancouver) for information and community resources on mental health or any mental illness.

Calm your Mind

Meditation and yoga are fantastic ways to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety and tension, as well as deal with health issues like chronic pain and insomnia. 

Meditation is about looking within to promote peace and well-being. It involves calming the mind and breathing deeply to remain present in the moment and give our brains and bodies a break from all of the worry of past or future events that we have little control over. It’s a skill that needs time to develop as it’s not always easy for many of us to sit still without distractions.

If just getting started, try for only 15 minutes. Find a quiet space, whether in your bedroom or backyard. Begin by drawing attention to the breath then slowly scan each part of your body, noticing any subtle sensations that may be arising. Most newcomers to meditation benefit from using a mantra to focus. This is a simple statement that gets repeated silently or out loud, like “May I be happy” or “Ohm”. 

Meditation does not have to be a completely individual practice. The whole family can come together for a period of stillness and quiet together and this routine of calm can be incredibly beneficial for children and adults. For children, a walking meditation can be another option if sitting still is too challenging. Go for an easy walk in nature but instead of talking, have everyone focus on breathing and repeating their mantra.

For some of us, meditation is very challenging in terms of being still, especially in a busy household! Yoga may be an easier way to achieve some meditative moments, it can also be done as a family and you get some beneficial stretching too. There are many ways to get started with yoga, like pose cards or videos. But once you get some foundational movements, it can be fun to play “follow the leader” and everyone takes a turn suggesting a pose. 

In the yogic and Ayurvedic tradition, sattva means clarity, purity, and wholesomeness. Sattvic foods are the foundation of the yogic diet and preferred by yogis and include foods that are nourishing and easy to digest, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and herbal teas (https://about.spud.com/blog-live-like-yogi-eat-like-yogi/). Luckily these are also the foundational foods of Canada’s Food Guide—half your plate veggies and fruit and plant-based proteins more often!

The CBC has more information for getting started on meditation: https://www.cbc.ca/life/wellness/advice-from-a-buddhist-monk-on-how-to-start-a-successful-meditation-practice-1.5341736

Keeping Connected

The time of physical distancing has been a challenge for us all but some may struggle with mental health more than others, especially without the usual support of our friends, far-away family or being face-to-face with our healthcare providers. Anxiety may be exacerbated by concerns about risk of disease, outlook for the future and worry about loved ones. Although this is common and understandable, it needs to be addressed if it is decreasing quality of life. 

Symptoms like sleep disturbances or difficulty getting out of bed; decreased appetite or binge eating; uncontrollable stress or depressed mood, substance abuse or thoughts of self-harm, are signs that help may be required. And there is no shame in asking for it! It’s the opposite—total respect for reaching out, being vulnerable and trying to make a change for yourself and your family.

Ways to manage symptoms and stay positive might include:

  • Talking to family and friends, whether about your feelings or just to stay connected
  • Stress management techniques—meditation, yoga, hot bath, walking, journaling
  • Creating a routine for eating, exercise and sleep
  • Limiting substances like caffeine, alcohol, cannabis and added sugar
  • Including key nutrients like omega 3 fatty acids and protein from salmon, sardines, chia and ground flax seed, as well as antioxidants and fibre from vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains
  • Prioritizing moderate to vigorous exercise (at least 60 minutes per day for 5-17 year olds and 150 minutes per week for adults)
  • Focusing on the present and enjoying time in nature

The BC Centre for Disease Control and the Canadian Association of Mental Health have online self-assessments and free resources, as well as a crisis line to call anytime. If you, or a loved one, need support, please get help today: http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19/about-covid-19/mental-well-being-during-covid-19 

Managing Isolation

It’s been 4 weeks of social distancing due to COVID-19, and although the days blur together, they are each also different. I wanted us to develop a routine, but it hasn’t evolved as expected. I already do most of my work from home (blog and recipe writing, online facilitation and now teaching) so I’m so fortunate to still be employed during this difficult time, but it sure has changed dramatically.

I am trying to work, but I’m also full-time parenting and missing the hours of free childcare that I took very much for granted. As I write this post, my 11-year old daughter is in the room on Zoom with her class, my 8-year old son is expelling peanut butter breath on me whilst reading over my shoulder and my husband pops out of the back room every hour for another coffee, snack or meal. 

Keeping the kids engaged all day has been a struggle. And I don’t mean trying to ‘school’ them, because that is just getting going with their terrific teachers. Just simply keeping them busy so they don’t wander aimlessly around the house, picking up the cat, digging for snacks in the cupboard and driving me crazy!

So, what has that looked like? It really does change each day, with some recurrent themes that carry through:

  1. Moving our bodies. We all get a little wound up if we don’t expend some energy and get our heart rates up, and I don’t get my escape to hot yoga! We are fortunate to have a yard and so we have our badminton net set up. We like to do YouTube workout videos. And we go for walks and bike rides. We are also lucky to have a garden so pulling weeds, building beds and spreading mulch adds extra exercise alongside productivity and appreciation of nature.
  2. Cooking together. We’ve had a hard time creating a routine around breakfast and lunch, as people are hungry at different times or busy with work and activities. Breakfasts tend to be fend for yourself—frozen fruit and yogurt, eggs and toast, cereal, smoothies. Lunches are best when we have enough leftovers, otherwise there’s cheese and crackers, hummus and veggies, canned salmon. But dinners are when we come together and make a nice meal. We asked the kids to come up with one breakfast, lunch and dinner each week that they make, but it doesn’t always work out. They did succeed with whole grain waffles from scratch one morning, deviled eggs and stuffed mushrooms for an appetizer dinner and we’ve played around with a couple of pies! All with help of course.
  3. Games. We ordered the Pirates & Explorers expansion pack for Settlers of Catan. That was set up on the dining room table for the first 3 weeks and we played for days, but eventually we needed a break from it. We’ve also joined some live quizzes on Instagram and found some educational apps like geography games. It’s really hard to come up with activities for the kids that don’t always involve screens and don’t always involve a parent.
  4. Theme nights. We had a blast doing a karaoke night where we each picked a song and musician, created a costume and performed for each other (I chose Carole King’s Where You Lead but my son truly owned his Elton John Rocketman!). There were prizes awarded and everyone won one—best costume, most on key, most engaging, best song choice. The next ones planned are a Fondue night, the Oscars and our Easter celebrations. These definitely help to break up the monotony and give us something to look forward to each week.
  5. Letting go. Some days I’m anxious and some I feel productive and positive. When I’m feeling a bit down and stressed, I find that letting go of the expectations to do all of the above is key. So we’ve had a couple of days in jammies watching more t.v. than usual where I’m not nagging everyone, including myself, to get dressed, brush teeth, move our bodies, engage our minds, tidy up, be grateful, etc. We just snuggle up and relax and enjoy the fact that we have nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Stay tuned for more posts to come on grocery shopping and menu planning, but for those who need more ideas, more support and access to credible resources today, the following may be helpful:

For everything COVID-related: http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19

For cooking as a family: https://www.bettertogetherbc.ca/

For staying active as a family: https://activeforlife.com/recipe-for-an-active-day/

We All Have Mental Health

Mental health is one’s state of psychological and emotional well-being and it’s always in flux. We all have days when we’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed and that is part of mental health. Many of us may have more prolonged periods of anxiety or depression where we need support to cope with these common conditions. Then there are some of us that have more challenge overcoming these conditions and we may be diagnosed with mental illness, a more severe condition that impacts one’s ability to function in a healthy way. Mental illness affects 1 in 3 Canadians but it’s not always visible to those around us.

People with depression still make jokes, people with anxiety still care for others and people with suicidal thoughts may still show up for work or school every day. These people are all around us and we never know what’s behind a plastered-on smile and “fine thanks” if we don’t take the time to look in someone’s eyes and kindly, genuinely ask how they are really doing.

January 29th, 2020 is Bell Let’s Talk day (https://letstalk.bell.ca/en/), a national campaign for the last 10 years, that is devoted to decreasing the stigma around mental illness. And it’s working! A 2019 Nielsen Consumer Insights survey showed that 84% of Canadians are comfortable talking to others about their mental health—this number has doubled from 2012!

Some research shows that half of mental illnesses start in adolescence, a time when youth may be connecting less with their parents and caregivers who could help support them. Suicide is the cause of one quarter of the deaths of our youth aged 15-24 and it effects males 4 times as much as females. This is second only to accidents as the leading cause of death and it is preventable, as long as we decrease the stigma around addressing it and get people the professional support they require.

At the moment, we do not have enough research to blame the exponential rise of screen time and social media on the high levels of mental ill health we have here in Canada, but it’s clear that it’s not making it better. Screens get in the way of one of the best things we can do for our mental health—talk! 

We also know that adolescents have one of the lowest rates of physical activity, although it’s been decreasing in every age group in Canada. Physical activity is also a fantastic way to improve our mental health, both from the feel-good chemicals we produce when we’re active as well as the social aspect of many activities.

Connect with children and family more often by eating and being active together. Family meals have so many positive effects, one of which is mental well-being. Fill plates with vegetables, fruit, seafood and unrefined grains for the best effect on mental health. 

For more information and to find support: