Preparing Your Mental Health for Seasonal Changes
One of the ways that we can support our mental health is through preparation. To anticipate when things might be challenging and support ourselves before things get bad. If the change of seasons from fall to winter is a stressor for your mental health, you’re not alone. There are many factors that play into this transition being challenging. For example, less sunlight hours can throw off our circadian rhythms and levels of vitamin D – both things that can have profound impacts on mental health and mood.
While we want to focus on coping with these changes, many people have already heard the go-to advice. I could write you a blog post that offers tools and supplements to ease your symptoms, but many of those already exist and are a quick google search away. Take a vitamin D supplement, exercise, focus on sleep hygiene. All of those are important pieces of the puzzle, but what if we also paired these with a whole new outlook on the seasonal change? What if we took the opportunity to view the transition into colder months, not as something to dread, but as an opportunity to deepen our connection with ourselves?
Let’s talk about winter. The seasonal shift to less hours of sunlight and colder temperature is accompanied with sadness and dread for many. In her book, Wintering, Katherine May points out that humans have become the sole mammal in the animal kingdom to fight exactly what winter is. She says:
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs.”
For many of us, one of the greatest reasons the seasonal change can be so difficult is because of our resistance. Ever heard the saying, what you resist persists? Perhaps it’s time to practice some radical acceptance around just what winter is. The end of the life cycle for nature. Put more bluntly, winter symbolizes death.
While modern day society has disconnected many of us from the inherent connection with nature and the seasonal cycles, we can still access this connection with some effort. As the leaves fall from the trees and we’re left with a barren landscape, we notice that death is all around us. What happens when we let ourselves embrace this reality? What happens when we make space for something new? Can we even make space for something new without letting go of the things that no longer serve their purpose in our lives?
We talk a lot about self-care these days. It’s a great conversation and narrative to have, but one that often gets co-opted by capitalist interests. What I mean by this is that yes, buying things like essential oils or SAD lamps may serve as a tool to support your mental health, but they are only one part of the equation. We can’t buy our way out of our pain. If these tools help you support yourself during difficult seasons, then please continue to support yourself in this way. It may also be worth exploring the notion that self-care is sometimes hard. One of the most potent ways we can care for ourselves is to work through the painful wounds we work hard to run away from. There is a whole other layer of self-care that beckons us to look inside. It asks us what do I want out of life? Where am I playing small? What relationships are harming me that I continue to let in to my life? What am I avoiding? If those questions scare you, that’s a good thing. It means that some very real, life-changing answers might be under the surface.
What are the tools we can use to embrace winter through this lens? One that isn’t about seeing it as just the absence of summer, but as a deeply transformative season that allows us to shift our mental landscapes?
Embrace the cycle through intention setting. Explore the idea that your life can parallel the seasons. What do you want to let go of this season? Focusing on the areas of your life where you can let go and release allows you to create space to plant seeds that can be nurtured at the end of this cycle. Setting intentions can be a helpful way to mentally stay present.
Inner work. Whether through therapy, journaling, meditation, or other means, winter offers us an incredible time to go inward. Explore using the tools that allow you to focus on your own inner landscape.
Connecting with the earth. One way that we can connect more deeply with the earth is to eat seasonally. Focus on grounding foods like squash and warming spices like cinnamon and ginger. Even if you live somewhere with snow that is cold, getting outside can be a way to continue nurturing this connecting.
Let yourself rest. Winter is a time of rest. Many of us spend so much time being busy and constantly wishing for more time to rest. If a bear can give itself permission to hibernate for the entire season, you can give yourself permission to skip that workout.
Many experts agree that one contributing factor to the rise in mental health problems over the past decade is a greater sense of disconnection – something that has been building since the industrial revolution and only worsened with the advent of social media (and now the pandemic). While connection to others is vitally important for better mental health, connection can be found in many other ways. This approach to winter offers us a deeper connection to the earth, the seasons, and ourselves. When we see winter as something merely to get through, we disconnect ourselves from an entire season – not just of weather – but of our lives. If we allow ourselves into our winters, we have a chance to connect more deeply to life itself.