Winter is just about here, and so come natural changes in the daily rhythms of light, temperature, and overall environment. Seasonal changes entail more than just weather, including changes to the social environment as marked by traditions and behavioral norms. Whether or not we are consciously aware of these changes, our moods, emotions, and activity levels can still be influenced.
I am currently obsessed with the new season of Planet Earth 2, in part because this show so eloquently demonstrates the nature of experience for so many beautifully diverse species. Yet, despite so many unique forms of existence, we still find universal realities shared by all living creatures in the natural world. Across species, we find that winter marks a time when many animals are naturally inclined to retreat in the safety and comfort of their dwellings, often gathering together in their family groups for protection and warmth. Winter also symbolizes a time of cessation (in more yogic terms, non-doing), whether it is the wilting of plants and flowers or the surrendering sleep of hibernation. We may find literal and metaphoric similarities to our own responses to these changing seasons. By examining the gifts of this season, and our own symbiotic relationship with the natural world all around us, we become better equipped to understand and utilize our own responses to the changes that this winter may bring.
Let the light in - The increased hours of darkness in the winter have direct consequences to our physiological and psychological states. Most notably, human hormone production and transportation are impacted by increased darkness. This increased darkness results in higher levels of "the sleep hormone" melatonin, which suggests that it is not a coincidence that we may experience more fatigue and lower levels of energy during the winter months, and sometimes even insomnia . In addition, the relative lack of sunshine can also affect our mood regulation, resulting in lower levels of serotonin . For the majority of people, these hormonal changes are too subtle to really notice. However, 10-25% of the population may experience seasonal affective disorder, or depressed mood corresponding to the decrease hours of sunlight. Relatedly, colder temperatures predict more narrowly focused thinking (e.g., less flexibility in behavior, less curiosity or interest in exploring new ideas) and negative mood .
Self care tip: The human body was designed to function in alignment with the natural world. When the sun rises, the body is prepared for activity. As the sun sets, the body is inclined to begin to wind down. In this modern era of so much exposure to artificial light, it becomes increasingly important for us to take advantage of natural sunlight whenever possible, especially during winter months when sunlight can be harder to come by. Try to spend the first few hours of the day in a brightly lit space, which will signal to your body to halt melatonin production and assist you in transitioning out of sleep. Limit your use of artificial light (e.g., t.v., computers, phones, etc), especially during the hours before sleep. For those with noticeable seasonal side effects may want to try spending some time in an infrared sauna, as these saunas provide warmth and also emit infrared rays that simulate the positive effects of sunlight on the body. Pay attention to any changes in activity and mood, as they correspond with changes in light. If you notice an unexplainable increase in depressed mood during the winter months, you could be experiencing seasonal affective disorder.
Gather your resources wisely- Winter can be a time of scarcity for many. Depending on where you live, this can mean scarcity of fresh food or other natural resources that are significantly less abundant in the winter months. This can also mean a more abstract form of scarcity, whether it is lower levels of energy or less restorative free time to fill your social and emotional well. As such, we may feel naturally inclined to gather up and reserve our resources. Researchers find an overall trend of weight gain that occurs during the fall and winter months . Increased weight gain may not always be the healthiest way to gather your resources, but there may be some emotional and mental approaches that can help you reclaim and restore your energy during the winter months.
Self care tip: Take notice of any habitual comfort eating. Winter presents so many unique triggers for stress: cold temperature, lack of light, holiday chaos, social obligations, family reunions, etc. It can be easy to turn to food and eating as a quick fix when we feel depleted.
For all of these reasons, winter can be a great time to start a mindfulness practice. Set aside just 10 minutes a day to sit in stillness. Insight Timer is my favorite meditation app on the market. They have beautiful bells to use in timed meditations, as well as a long list of guided meditations to address any specific challenges you may be facing. Meditation can sound intimidating or uninteresting at first. But, mindfulness meditation can offer tremendous benefits for your wellbeing, including: increased self-awareness, more positive emotional states, and greater self-control .
Another great resource is time with friends. Often, our habit in times of stress is to retreat to our quiet places: maybe curl up with a favorite T.V. show or book instead of attending that social gathering that you were invited to. However, we must practice careful discernment when it comes to making these decisions. Although social gatherings do require effort, they can also be restorative. Even introverted people have a need for social connection and meaningful relationships. So, don't underestimate the power of communing with friends when your spirits are low. Conscious engagement in social interaction can allow us to release the personal burdens we carry by sharing and talking with a beloved friend, find humor and new perspectives during challenging times, and create more meaningful experiences, which can be especially important during the holiday seasons.
A time for celebration - Regardless of your religious and cultural traditions, throughout the history of human culture, the winter months often represent a time for celebration. As a radical young adult, I was skeptical of the consumer-driven madness of the holidays in the West. But, as I took a step back from this hypercritical, politicized view of the season, I was able to notice the beautiful sentiments and intentions for peace, love, and togetherness that the winter holidays embody. I began to reclaim this season for my own. I opted to gather friends and family in my home to prepare foods that I find nourishing. I took part in special rituals that inspire and bring me joy, like sending cards, lighting candles, and listening to joyful music. I have always loved to give gifts, but instead of rushing into the overstimulating environments of shopping malls out of obligation, I choose to shop at small, conscious stores and support my friends' businesses whenever I can. Among my favorite holiday tradition: welcoming the winter solstice with the yogic tradition of practicing 108 Sun Salutations. I gave myself permission to celebrate and create my own joyful traditions and this has drastically altered my experience of the winter holiday season.
Self care tip: Decide how you would like to celebrate this season. Create traditions and gatherings based on the activities that bring you joy. Think outside of the box when it comes to your approach to these celebrations. What does this time of year mean for you? How can you honor and embody the virtues that you find most meaningful?
Thank you for reading! Wishing you all a lovely Winter!
- Lambert, G. W., Reid, C., Kaye, D. M., Jennings, G. L., & Esler, M. D. (2002). Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain. The Lancet, 360, 1840-1842.
- Rosenthal, N. E., Sack, D. A., Gillin, J. C., Lewy, A. J., Goodwin, F. K., Davenport, Y., Mueller, P.S., Newsome, D.A. & Wehr, T. A. (1984). Seasonal affective disorder: a description of the syndrome and preliminary findings with light therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 41, 72-80.
- Keller, M. C., Fredrickson, B. L., Ybarra, O., Côté, S., Johnson, K., Mikels, J., Conway, A., & Wager, T. (2005). A warm heart and a clear head the contingent effects of weather on mood and cognition. Psychological Science, 16, 724-731.
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- Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822.