It’s hard to overstate the degree (minus 11 F tomorrow here in Chicago) to which the Midwest has settled into the dead of winter. With the rush of the holidays behind us, two dark, cold months lie ahead.
Snowstorms, sub-zero temps, and icy pavement prompt many of us to stay indoors when we’d rather be out walking or spending time with friends and family. Not to mention the heavy coats, bags, and scarves that place additional burdens on our shoulders, backs, and joints.
Then there are the deeply overcast skies and reduced sunlight, which have varying effects on our mood and energy. Some of us experience the effects of winter more acutely than others, relating strongly to the idea of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called the winter blues.
The science behind low sun exposure robustly supports wintertime depression and fatigue. Sunlight produces serotonin, a hormone that regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. SSRI antidepressants such as Prozac boost serotonin levels to improve mood and feelings of well-being. Darker days and reduced sunlight not only cause us to produce less serotonin, but also send the message to our bodies that since it’s dark outside it must be nighttime, which causes us to release the hormone melatonin to increase sleepiness.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that South African scientist Norman Rosenthal, MD, coined the term seasonal affective disorder. Shortly after moving to the east coast of the US, Dr. Rosenthal experienced a dramatic change in mood. Once fall turned into winter he became sluggish and more depressed and had sleep issues.
He and his colleagues proceeded to conduct a research study with 160 participants who were experiencing the same symptoms. Their primary treatment was a morning routine of light therapy–standing in front of a light fixture that emitted 2500 lux. The results were overwhelmingly positive.
Today people are encouraged to buy or rent light boxes for use during autumn and winter, and the suggested dosage of light has increased to 10,000 lux. Light boxes, along with talk therapy and antidepressants, are the most commonly prescribed treatments for SAD.
These approaches, along with supplements, are not only helpful but necessary for some of us during the winter season. But don’t let the suggestion inherent in the phrase “seasonal affective disorder” (i.e., you have a literal disorder that needs to be corrected) imply that there’s something wrong with the changes many of us feel in these colder, darker days.
Shifting our view of SAD symptoms
What if we shifted our view slightly and saw our decreased energy as very much in order with the natural world? When we look at nature around us we see that animals hibernate, plants and trees cease growth or die, and the earth freezes. There’s a profound stillness and quiet after the harvest and before another growing season begins.
What if we took this one step further and found a deeper purpose for ourselves during this naturally cold and dark season?
Ayurveda, an ancient lifestyle practice with roots in India, teaches us how to live in harmony with the natural world. Each season contains five elements: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. One or two elements dominate each season as well as each individual.
Summer is the season of the fire element, with gardens at peak growth. There are foods and activities we thrive on during the summer months that we wouldn’t dream of doing in deep winter (croquet and a cookout anyone?). Some people who are a little more “fiery” than others are attracted to this season.
Winter, on the other hand, is dominated by air and ether. The air is thinner, stars shine more brightly, and some regions experience increased wind. As winter nears spring, water and earth become more prevalent. This is especially true in cold/humid climates, where snow melts frequently into sludge and the earth thaws but then refreezes and thaws again. Here’s a link to more information on the Ayurvedic qualities of each season.
Air and ether are elements of creativity and introspection. As a result, meditation, yoga, and artistic hobbies are supportive during this winter season. As the season develops more water qualities, particularly in March, we begin making preparations for the warmer days ahead. We see this literally as farmers and gardeners prepare their land to plant.
As mentioned earlier, each person also has one or two elements that dominate her physical, energetic, and psycho/emotional self. When these elements move out of balance (either by over-dominating or nearly disappearing, we experience disease (think dis-ease) and illness.
In winter, air and ether don’t have the earth element to ground them, which can give way to anxiety, poor planning, or sleep problems. This is particularly true for individuals who are already dominated by the qualities of air and ether. To learn more about your elemental constitution, click here.
Yoga therapy is often called the sister science to Ayurveda, linking the principles of Ayurveda with the practices of yoga. Like Ayurveda, yoga therapy offers a variety of tools for staying in balance across the changing seasons.
An asana, or posture, practice can be used to slowly build the fire element, which stabilizes energy in winter. Movement that’s adapted especially for you can be particularly helpful in the morning and motivational for the rest of the day. Breathing techniques also keep air passageways clear as the water element increases during winter and sinus congestion builds. Sinus oil and Soledum also help soothe irritated, congested airways.
Other times, a more restorative approach to movement may be helpful. Restorative yoga uses props such as blankets and bolsters to support the body in different positions in order to open and release the spine. This is especially helpful given the additional burden of clothing, bags, and boots during these dark days. For those who have sleep issues, restorative yoga is helpful just before bed. It’s also a more introspective practice, which is indicated for this time of year.
Another winter-oriented introspective practice is meditation. Certain meditations can be used to restore energy, such as a Yoga Nidra meditation.
Others can be done while moving, such as the mindfulness walking meditation. A loving kindness meditation affirms well wishes for yourself and others. It can be done any time of day, but is particularly beneficial at the end of your day, just before bed.
These meditations also help anxiety, depression, and even erratic energy levels.
WholeHealth Chicago’s approach
The scope of movement, meditation, and other self-care practices is virtually endless. As WholeHealth Chicago’s yoga therapist, I help many people across a range of ability and age groups find movements, breathing techniques, and meditation practices that are helpful and uniquely suited to their needs.
Christine Savas, one of WholeHealth Chicago’s licensed professional counselors, also specializes in helping her talk therapy patients find their own forms of self-care, expression, and stress management. Christine draws on approaches as diverse as art therapy and journaling exercises to encourage her patients to create their own self-care toolbox. This can be helpful seasonally or any time of year. Learn more about Christine here.
If you’re having trouble with planning or structuring your day, establishing a routine of healthy habits is especially challenging when you’re out of balance. Valarie McConville, WholeHealth Chicago’s occupational therapist, specializes in just this: helping others organize their daily activities in a way that supports them physically, energetically, and mentally. Learn more here about how Valarie’s approach to occupational therapy can vastly improve your day-to-day life.
Each person’s healing path is unique. The practitioners at WholeHealth Chicago understand this and offer a diverse range of treatment approaches that work individually and together. Whether you choose a light box, talk therapy, a seasonal prescription, and/or a new self-care practice, may you live in harmony with yourself as well as the natural world.
Renee Zambo, C-IAYT