Embracing Winter

Stephanie Batts
For those of us in regions where the winter hits hard, it's not hard to see the impact on our mental health. Even though Autumn is my favorite season, I notice my anxiety levels increasing with each falling leaf. Many of my clients report feeling similar increases in anxiety, stress, irritation, lack of motivation, and depression in the winter months.

For clients, illness, depressive/anxiety symptoms, family conflict, financial stress, and holiday pressures are common complaints. For therapists, all of the above, with the added bonus of more cancellations, no shows, and crisis calls.
In my practice, I usually check in with clients during this time of year to see how the season is weighing on them. Since I use an integrative approach, we address from the perspectives of body, mind, spirit, and environment. As I notice my own stress levels rising, I do the same check in with myself. Even thought I'm aware of this pattern of increased anxiety, it always surprises me how tense my body gets before I even notice it. The first step of the check in is to conduct a body scan to help recognize any tensions and discomfort. I will suggest that a client sits quietly for a few minutes with eyes closed and notice what they feel as they scan from head to toe. After reporting what they notice we will discuss their typical feelings about the winter months. I will then ask them to conduct the body scan again to notice how their body is reacting to thinking about the winter months. For some clients this isn't as easy task, so just encourage them to sit with it for a few minutes and notice if there are any sensations they can describe. Recognizing how their body is reacting to just thinking about the winter months can lead to identifying emotion connected to those physical sensations.

Next step is assessing, from that integrative perspective, what things are different for the client during this season. Below are some questions I use to get the ball rolling.

Do I move less in the winter?
Do I eat/drink differently?
Are my sleep patterns disrupted or different in some way?

Am I noticing increased depressive/anxiety symptoms?
Am I experiencing more negative thoughts?
Am I feeling more isolated and less engaged?
Have I increased scrolling social media or screens in general?

Do I feel less connection to my faith?
Do I notice a difference in how I am receiving energies?
Am I feeling less connected to nature?
Am I engaging in rituals and practices that I normally do?

Is the decrease in natural light bothersome?
How is the colder temperature affecting me?
Do the people around me seem different?
The topic I hear most about during this time of year is holiday stress. Discussions around holiday stress include financial pressures, scheduling strains, family discord, and Covid protocols. Holidays were stressful for people pre-Covid, with high expectations and family drama, but with Covid and our current divided political climate it's a whole other ballgame. There are so many new issues with which to agree or disagree. Covid protocols seems to dominate discussions in session, but the realization that grandpa is "fill in the blank" (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) is also a frequent topic. As I just used grandpa in that example
I wonder, do I have a bias against grandpas?; We all have biases, so checking in with ourselves in never a bad idea. Before social media you wouldn't necessarily know what your aunt believes about climate change or Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ rights, but since many of us share our beliefs and opinions online it's hard to want to attend an event full of people you know don't align with you.

Now that I've expressed my own anxious feelings about the winter months, let's move toward some solutions to help us not just survive but thrive. First, acknowledge, understand, and allow yourself some grace in dealing with the reality of our current times. It would be a huge understatement to say we are living in difficult times. Second, assess your specific struggles so you can find ways to counteract the effects of old man winter with a holistic approach.

Coming from a body perspective, it's normal to slow down some in the winter. If that slower pace feels great, there is no need for change, just embrace the idea of hibernation. For some people, having down time at home is a dream scenario. However, if it doesn't feel great and you are noticing that wrapping in your blankets at 6pm isn't working for you, then look for new ways to engage your body. Talk with friends and see if someone with similar feelings about winter would like to be an accountability partner. Join a new exercise class, or follow someone new on YouTube to workout together virtually. Another tip that I hear works for many clients is using habit tracking apps. You can start by tracking some basic needs like water and sleep, then add more detailed goals to help keep you motivated. Lastly, if you love to be outdoors, then layer up. Juniper at the Academy has great tips about ways to make the winter more enjoyable for those of us that miss our connection to the earth during the colder months. She speaks more in depth about the subject in our latest podcast episode, but the short version is to layer up and choose wool layers closest to the body. Juniper also suggests carrying a hot beverage to help feel warmed from the inside.

Other tips for nurturing the body in winter months:
  • Spending regular time in a sauna or heated pool.
  • Invigorating self-massage with stimulating essential oils (like peppermint or eucalyptus).
  • In Ayurvedic medicine, it is recommended for most people to eat warmer, well-spiced foods during the winter (kapha) season.
  • Change up your morning routine to include a bit more invigorating movement and/or to allow some natural light into your space.

Focusing on the mind, like always, step one is acceptance. Let's acknowledge that if you love the summertime, winter is not going to miraculously feel wonderful, but there are definitely things we can do to make it better. For example, remembering it is temporary for those of us with four seasons and reminding yourself of that impermanence by either planning something for the winter months ahead of time or lean into the winter and find some ways to embrace it with a new enthusiasm. Reframing can be a powerful tool, try thinking of the cold wind as refreshing instead of biting, or thinking of the darkness as extra time to reflect on inner peace. Practicing mindfulness anytime is an important strategy for wellness, and using it in the winter months can be particularly rewarding. My favorite go-to mindfulness technique is to do any activity you don't love in a mindful, intentional, senses-engaging way. For example, engage the senses by setting the mood by lighting a candle and putting on your favorite music before you tackle that basket of laundry. As you fold the laundry, notice how the fabrics feel in your hands, make note of how you fold each piece, and create a ritual of completion as you finish the task. This will feel more like self care and less like just a mundane chore.

Another good exercise is to try guided meditation and visualization (we love Insight Timer for this).

Addressing spirit, spirit means different things for different people. As I think of it, I define spirit as those things that make us feel connection. That connection can be felt through faith, through earth, through community, through creativity, or whatever works for you. For many of us, creating lights up our spirit like nothing else. Creativity comes in so many forms- paint something, cook something, knit something, write something, play something, just let those creative juices flow. Winter can be a good time to join a class and learn a new creative skill. As Covid continues to be an issue, many creative communities, faith-based groups, and environmental/social change organizations have online offerings to help with building community and creating connection.

Spiritual Wellness
  • Write or say 1-3 gratitude items that are winter-specific each evening or morning.
  • Learn or dive into a winter tradition, custom, or ritual that was practiced by your ancestors.
  • Regularly monitor your energy and sensitivity and make supportive adjustments.

For the environment, let's talk about our physical environment. We can't control the weather but we can make our interior space as comfortable as possible. Make note of how you feel in your space. Is the space energizing or draining? Comfortable or cluttered? Often we don't realize how much our physical space affects our mood and energy levels. If the clutter is weighing on you, schedule a weekend to declutter and organize your space. Engage the senses- tending to an indoor plant, lighting a new candle, or sipping aromatic tea can lift a mood. Play music instead of watching TV, listen to some old favorites but make sure to search out new music (and I always suggest dancing whenever possible!). There is comfort in the nostalgia of old tunes, but making new connections to music can be very uplifting. Eat something new, or cook an old favorite recipe. Don't forget the sense of touch, a fuzzy blanket, soft pajamas, warm cup of tea and a great book can make the coldest evening feel cozy.

Other environmental tips:
  • Bring nature into your home (plants, driftwood, etc.).
  • Detox from social media or the news in small chunks throughout the season.
  • Notice the moon and sun everyday and make note of how it changes.
  • Cozy up your sleeping and lounging spaces with winter-only blankets, sheets, and scents to make the season feel more special.
Ok, so here we go on that family/holiday piece. If you have strict Covid protocols and other members of your family do not, you will need to talk about your needs and comfort levels early and often. For example, if you know you don't plan to spend time around unvaccinated people indoors, let your family know as soon as possible. If you are fortunate your family will accept that and understand it isn't personal. If you're not so lucky you may have to spend some time explaining that it isn't because you don't want to spend time with them, but that the risks feel too high. I suggest finding more comfortable ways to spend time with family and
friends. For example, and I know no one wants more Zoom time, but plan a game night and make it more festive by listening to your favorite holiday music in the background. Another good concession is to plan to meet with masks for a shorter amount of time and after dinner so you don't have to take off your mask if you aren't comfortable.

As for that... oh sh*# my values and beliefs don't align with my family. Remember that they likely have never aligned with some family members and you've managed to avoid conflict for years. I'm not saying you have to agree with them or even keep quiet if people are saying offensive things, I'm just saying pick your battles and remember that it is very unlikely you are going to change their minds in a heated exchange over eggnog. That me to another point, liming your alcohol intake at family gatherings can help you avoid conflict and regrets. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a set time to leave a family gathering and plan something comforting to do afterwards, like meet with a friend that always makes you laugh. A strategy that I have used in the past is to have a list of noncontroversial topics in my head ready to use to change the subject- did you see this cute puppy video, or I saw that new movie and it was amazing. When things start to get tense (depending on the crowd), sometimes I will address the tension and say something like wow that topic is kind of heavy for a holiday party and then use my conversation changers or suggest some fun game to play. We often feel held hostage by the loudest most opinionated person in the room and trust me most people will be glad you switched the energy to something more fun. Of course if it gets too overwhelming and distraction techniques aren't working, save yourself! Have a plan of escape, an excuse to go to your car, or go for a walk outside to breathe in some fresh air. There is no rule that says you have to be tortured during holidays, protect your peace (as our team member Natoya so eloquently coined on our latest podcast)! I know that is the mantra I will have on repeat in my brain this winter season!

Protect your peace people
(and I would add... and don't feel guilty about it)!