Maintaining mental health while working in isolation

"Winter Isolation" by Carol Harrison
“Winter Isolation” by Carol Harrison

By Shara Love

There is little that I despise more than going out in crowds, especially at this time of year. With sub-zero temperatures, mounds of snow at every turn, and traffic everywhere, nothing sounds better to me than staying home and cozying up on a comfy sofa with a cup of coffee and a computer or a good book, while waiting for spring. Unfortunately, it behooves me to do otherwise. Winter may encourage my hermit-like behaviour, but I must not succumb to the negative side effects. My mental health and ability to function depend on it.

One of those negative side effects is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), up to 35 per cent of Canadians experience some level of seasonal depression. Of this percentage, seasonal depression affects roughly 80 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men. Knowing and raising awareness about this condition may help potential sufferers to take preventative action to dodge the blows of this debilitating mental disorder.

Symptoms of SAD

According to CAMH, some of the most common signs of SAD include a change in appetite, weight gain, fatigue, tendencies to oversleep, irritability, avoidance of social interactions, or anxiety. If you’re a freelancer like me, you may recognize many of these symptoms. But people who work in-house are susceptible too. Whatever your circumstance, awareness will be beneficial to your mental health in the long run.

The Canadian Mental Health Association advises that you pay attention to changes such as irritability, mood swings, reaching for those sugary pastries more times than you’d care to admit to or lethargy that cannot be overcome with copious amounts of sleep. This may sound like a typical Wednesday afternoon, but when this behaviour becomes unbearable or abnormal, knowing the signs is crucial to treating SAD. The Canadian winter is challenging enough without adding mental stresses and disorders that catch you off guard, throwing a wrench in your work day.

Maintaining healthy isolation

Isolation during these hard winter days is one of the leading risk factors of SAD and other forms of depression, according to the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba. Freelance work often involves spending many hours confined to our homes, pushing to meet deadlines. This type of independent work requires discipline and self-management. However, it also requires a conscious effort to prevent the onset of SAD as a consequence of isolation.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, suggests a number of things that can be incorporated into your routine to maintain a strong mental balance between work and home life during the winter:

  • Go for a walk outside and get some fresh air. Stepping away from your workspace does wonders for your mood and inspires creativity, allowing you to reflect on ideas for upcoming projects. My dog depends on me to take him out two to three times a day or he’ll drive me crazy with squeaky, slobbery toys.
  • Rearranging your personal or work space. I’m all about small space heaters, socks, comfy sweaters, warm beverages, and candles.
  • Get out of your pajamas and put on comfy, yet presentable clothes. I like to be ready for one of those unexpected knocks at the door that makes my heart jump, which is one of the downsides to being a recluse.
  • Talk to your doctor about recommended light therapy boxes commonly used for people with SAD.

Stay connected

Remember to stay connected with others in order to break up your mental isolation.

  • Make plans with fellow freelancers for an hour or so a couple of times a month. Meeting with people who have a similar lifestyle as you can help combat isolation. Venting about work stress and talking shop without excessive explanation is a great relief.
  • Social media can help relieve some social isolation, but it can also exacerbate it. If you don’t know anyone close by, visit your local library to check out a new book or hear a guest speaker.
  • Seminars and editor meetups are also great for getting out and networking.

Whatever your flavour, any occasional human contact is essential for mental well-being and even more so during hard winter days.

If you feel you may be suffering from SAD or any other form of depression, see your doctor or contact the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at (416) 535-8501. Mental illness is nothing to feel ashamed of. Tap into your support resources and use them to get you through the winter.

Shara Love is a former Californian freelance editor/writer who now calls Toronto home. She holds and MA in international studies from the University of San Francisco and a BA in philosophy from California State University, Sacramento. When Shara isn’t editing or volunteering, she spends as much time outdoors as possible with her dog, pondering my existence.

This article was copy edited by Karen Kemlo.

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