I remember when I was little and I LOVED the winter. The food, the family, the presents, and the atmosphere made holiday time downright magical. I remember dressing up in my fancy dancies and arriving at my grandparents’ house where I got to meet up with my cousins for some great goof-off time. We’d show off our toys, eat, and play all afternoon long. Even when we grew into teens, we seemed to marvel in the wonder that came with acknowledging that we were all growing into the people that we were meant to become. The winter blues were something that I had heard of on TV, but I never thought I’d be afflicted by.
Fast forward to today. Although our family still remains tightly knit, we are geographically challenged. Our family has decided to settle all around the world…New Mexico, Seattle, California, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Germany. My family focus for the holidays gravitated from my New Mexico family to my two baby girls. When they were born, this was when I realized how magical the holidays truly are with kids. We moved to Germany when my girls were young, and wow…Germany during Christmas time…oh my. Beautiful and breathtaking, particularly in the company of my mom, sister, and daughters.
And then mom moved away. My sister moved away. The girls grew up. I got married to an amazing girl that I honor and cherish. We suffered a life-altering tragedy that changed our brightly colored lenses to somewhat of a grayish color.
Symptoms of the Winter Blues…
A few weeks ago I was walking through the PX (like a Walmart for Army folks) when I heard a song that sounded “Christmassy”, judging by the presence of bells in the song. Hurl. I began to cringe.
Later on that week, I walked into the office at work and heard Christmas carols playing. My stomach turned on me. I became instantly angry. What was with this instantaneous violent reaction to Christmas cheer? Later, during a staff meeting, we were asked to discuss our favorite Christmas memory. Immediately my mind began bubbling over with examples of how many ways a person’s holiday season can go terribly wrong.
C’mon, now! I’ve had plenty of holiday cheer in my life! Where were these winter blues coming from?
In attempting to figure it all out, I came up with a short list of things it could possibly be.
- It’s GOT to be SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Or maybe just the weather.
- Holiday demands, the home environment, and missing loved ones
Below are some ways that I have been working through these holiday afflictions. I prefer the term “work through” instead of “fix” or “deal”. We’re all humans. It’s important to recognize that not every emotion needs fixing (nor can it be fixed). Emotions are like breath. They come and they go, sometimes lingering around for longer periods than others.
It’s GOT to be SAD. The weather? The winter blues?
Okay, so, I’m a big psych nerd that loves to go into the ins and outs of what is happening in the brain under the influence different circumstances. As many of us know, our minds tend to gravitate toward the negative. It’s also true that nastiness makes a bigger impact on our brains, as they (our poor little brains) are more sensitive to unpleasant situations. We are wired to brace ourselves for the worst, and there is nothing that ol’ Kris Kringle can do about that. Ah. So this explains why, when asked to come up with my “best” memory, I was only able to come up with the worst.
SADdened by the season?
Shorter daylight hours means more melatonin production, leading to lethargy and symptoms of depression. Ah. Ick. Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn’t affect very many folks. In the US only six percent (particularly in the northern climates) have this affliction. Those that live in more southern climates that move to northern climates have a greater chance of developing this. Just a note though: since there is a chemical component to Seasonal Affective Disorder, you really don’t want to mess around with this. Check with your doctor or therapist. It can be quite a different animal than the winter blues.
Cortisol can be our friend. It mediates stress and anxiety when it is under its’ best behavior. It is instrumental in keeping us safe. However, when released in high levels, cortisol is a neurotoxin. It kills brain cells in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory). As we all know, the holiday season can lead to stress. People experience an increase in cortisol in stressful situations.
How sweet! Cortisol is keeping us alive from dinosaurs throughout the winter. Not to mention, it’s helping us increase our weight gain, and it’s also causing us adrenal fatigue.
How to Work Through It
SAD Lamp – I actually purchased a SAD lamp last year to place in my classroom so that any students who may be affected by this condition could receive the benefits of having a bright light shining on them. Although it didn’t end up working in the room, I did bring it home. Can’t find the time to sit in front of it, but I’m willing to try it out.
Move More; Make it different! – I can honestly say that I am an exercise FANATIC. I LOVE to move to beat the winter blues. One day I lift weights, the next day I run, the next day I dance, the next day I rest. EVERYday is a yoga day. Movement is the stuff of life to me. One of my favorite workouts is running with my dog in the woods. Well, in Germany, this is not possible for people that work. The sun rises at 8 and goes down at 4. No runs for me and poor Andy. My movement suffers. What shall I doooo? Well…I figured it out. I had to suck it up and hit the gym. I’m glad I did, too. Every time I run on that treadmill, WHOO WEEE! Endorphin city! Look…I know that exercise isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, if you have any sort of drive to get moving, DO IT!
Make Social Plans – I am a winter time homebody. Although I’m a pretty solid introvert, I get a little bit weird when I sit at home without social contact. That said, I have realized how important it is for me to make social plans during “winter blues” season, as much as I would hate to leave the house. Yes…although I am an introvert, I thrive on the connections that I make with people. I guess this means that I might need to put together a workshop or two to get my connection time in. I might even need to drag myself out to a New Year’s Eve party. Dang it. I love people.
Meditate – I will forever sing the praises of meditation. If you haven’t read Tolle’s works yet, you may want to do that before ever starting. Understanding the preciousness of the present and decreasing elevated adrenaline levels is a great way to regulate one’s self. I will write a whole lot more about this topic in time. For now, if you need more mindfulness information, please feel free to contact me via the “Contact Us” section. If you’re not really up for that, try chilling out on the caffeine. Caffeine can really jack up the adrenaline and make one edgy during this season. If you would like to try out a really simple yet engaging and relaxing meditation technique to help alleviate winter blues, try this Body Scan Technique.
Holiday Demands, the Home Environment, and Missing Loved Ones
The holiday season is full of all sorts of demands. We have financial, familial, and health demands to take care of. There are increased demands on time management, attentiveness, switching focus, planning and organizing, and remembering details. These are all functions that the prefrontal cortex is in charge of. A high demand on the prefrontal cortex (PFC) will decrease memory, stop production of new brain cells, and even cause existing brain cells to die. During this season, while our PFCs are in overdrive, we have a HUGE demand on our executive functioning, leading to a good case of winter blues. Can you say “pressure”?
In addition, some of us are away from home. The atmosphere isn’t the same. Loved ones may not be around. The cheeriest of the cheerful family members are somewhere else in the world, or they have passed on, leaving us to forever sense their void in our hearts for all future holidays. The term “missing” doesn’t even begin to graze the surface of the longing that is felt in their absence. No carol has been invented that can warm the heart of one that is experiencing grief or mourning. For this, we need to dig deep. REALLY deep.
How to Work Through It
Focus on the positive and take the time to do what you love – There is a formula to reprogram the brain to gravitate to positivity: 5 positive experiences to 1 negative experience. Flood the mind/body networks with positive experiences. I have chosen to spend the dark, dreary German winter days indoors doing things like cooking, writing, creating art pieces, working out, and dancing. Find whatever it is that brings sparks of joy into your chesticular cavity. Sense warmth there, whenever possible. Take note of it. Be inspired by it. Let it guide you into finding similar activities that will make you feel the same way.
Keep expectations realistic – Be gentle and RESPECT yourself. Think about what your boundaries are and honor them. This may even boil down to coolin’ it with the excessive spending. True, it feels great to give great gifts to your loved ones. However, if you’ve been operating on a strict budget in order to pay bills, be honest with yourself (can you tell what my focus has been on?). Scale it down…considerably. Simply do what you can and give only what you have. This includes time. Your loved ones will still feel loved by you if you operate within your own means. Think about what YOU need during the holiday season, and let yourself give to YOU first. Focus on giving through demonstrations of love and passion. Volunteer. Cook. Shoot…just show up. You may find that your presence is the best gift you can give.
Maintain a healthy diet – As hard as it is, eating clean is a great way to keep away the winter blues throughout the season. I am completely guilty of allowing my diet to go to pot this time of year. Carbs galore, with alcohol to go with it. Carbs leave me feeling lethargic, while consuming a little too much wine will inevitably lead to a long night of needing to get up to pee. Not optimal conditions for dealing with holiday demands the next day. Plus, my outlook is SO much better when I respect the nutritional needs of my body. But man, this is hard to do this time of year! Now, it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t let myself indulge in some of the delicious and decadent dessert delights that the season has to offer. After all, they allow my emotional “self” to become totally giddy. Therefore, I have decided to focus on eating only lean protein, fruits, and veggies during the week. The antioxidants, fiber, and protein provide me with energy and a well-balanced mind. If there is a party or event, I will allow myself to partake, but in moderation. I might nurse one glass of wine all night and switch to tea or water later. Thankfully, I’ve managed to train my body to NOT desire to eat the ENTIRE pumpkin pie and drink a whole bottle of wine before finally calling it a night (and trust me, I was once there). I have focused on honoring my body during 2016, and I don’t wish to look back.
Don’t be afraid to let it go – By all means, if you feel lonely, or if you are in the depths of some hellish grief, don’t be afraid to feel it. Find activities that will allow you to do this. For me, it’s dancing, painting, and writing. These emotions make us human. When we experience the holiday season with lenses that are colored by intense feelings, we are honoring our whole selves. This holiday season could feel like hell. However, after acknowledging these strong emotions, they will eventually become a feature in the album that you will have for all holiday memories, throughout life. I know that two years ago was one of the numbest holiday seasons I had ever experienced. Last year there were more feelings, and it began to sting. This year, I feel the bitter sting of it more intensely, but you know what? This emotion brings a vibrancy to the holiday that I have never before experienced. Sure, it’s true that I don’t feel like putting up my tree or listening to the stupid bells in carols. However, when I think of holiday seasons to come, I think about future grandchildren, travel, and connections with others. Emotions are the colors in the palette of life. Sometimes the color itself looks terrible, but it’s there…allowing us to revel in the beauty that is the whole picture at the end of our lives.
Most importantly, choose joy – I am fortunate enough to have a job that puts me in touch with children. If you need a good source for finding joy, check out these little agents of magic. Now, I know that not everybody loves kids as much as I do. If you get the chance, to spend a little time with them, allow yourself to simply observe and take it all in. I love to put myself in their shoes. Whenever I do this, I often forget about the past, the present, and even the future. I am able to explore the world through their eyes, and even sense their excitement. I can transport myself back to a time when I felt free and joyful. I remember swinging by my knees on the monkey bars, and playing under the slide while eating grass (yep…I was that kid). But you know what? Time stood still back then. Everything was magic. Joy filled my body, and I acted through joy.
So I choose to do just that.
I choose joy.