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'What if we explored what this phase of winter has to offer us, instead of grieving those things that it is taking away?'

By Esther De La Ford // BBC The Social contributor // 20 November 2020

It’s that time of year again. The clocks have changed, it’s suddenly getting dark at 5pm and if you’re in Scotland we have the promise of many months of persistent drizzle to come. The plants will be grateful, but the dark skies and constant rain don’t make it any easier for the rest of us to feel upbeat and motivated.

Add to this the anticipation of another lockdown at a time when many of us already struggle with our mental health and understandably, a lot of people are going to be feeling anxious about the coming winter.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also often called winter depression or ‘the winter blues’ comes with all the usual signs of depression but is unique in that it is triggered by the changing seasons. The exact cause isn’t fully understood but it is linked to sun exposure and its effects of a part of the brain called the Hypothalamus.

What if those of us with health issues allowed winter to be the time we take to care for ourselves, review how our lifestyle suits our bodies and really listen to what we needed for a change?

Last winter I made a video sharing some tips on how to support yourself if you experience SAD, but I wanted to add to it because while there are physical changes to your routine and lifestyle that can make a difference, what I’m hearing more and more is that what really helps is a change in mindset; not so easy to achieve.

I understand the dread of a lockdown in winter, the fear of loneliness and isolation. Nothing to do but sit at home, potentially in a small flat in the city, and binge watch Netflix while consuming various shades of beige food.

Tips For Tackling The Winter Blues

“My mental health has taken a dip at the same time every year for the last 5 years”

As pretentious as it may sound though, the best remedy for all of this is to see the long dark winter as an opportunity and a gift, rather than a punishing experience.

Studies of Norwegians have recently shown that people in the darkest parts of Norway who experienced the harshest and longest winters also had the best mindset and the highest levels of positive mental health and overall satisfaction. It appeared that those who most needed a positive mental attitude because of their environment were the ones who cultivated one.

Winter in nature is a time of dormancy; slowing down, retreating. Preserving energy and resources in readiness for the big push of creation and growth that comes with spring. Nature is cyclic, animals are cyclic, human beings are in many ways cyclic, although it can seem like we have forgotten this.

We expect so much from ourselves and each other, constantly bombarded with articles filled with productivity hacks and CEO-style morning routines. We’re surrounded by stories of overnight successes; told how we can turn our hobbies into ‘side hustles’ and how to make every moment of our days count towards being the most productive people we can be. We’ve forgotten how to be still, not for half an hour in the morning while we meditate because we read somewhere that it’s how Richard Branson became successful, but to move through each moment with a sense of stillness within us.

I understand the dread of a lockdown in winter, the fear of loneliness and isolation. Nothing to do but sit at home, potentially in a small flat in the city, and binge watch Netflix while consuming various shades of beige food.

What if we saw the coming winter as an opportunity to slow down? Not necessarily to stop doing things altogether, or even to stop working, but to work with the changing seasons and enjoy the possibilities they offer? What if we allowed a more physically isolated winter to also be the time we take to look at our priorities, re-assess our schedules and shift focus? What if we allowed the cold dark evenings to be the time we take to wrap up warm and work on a project that we haven’t had the mental space for in the past? What if we challenged ourselves to read a book a week from our to-be-read list or pick back up that online course we bought but never finished? What if we brought out old family recipes to try out, and said f**k it to feeling guilty about gaining a little extra ‘winter padding’ around our middles because our worth isn’t in how much we weigh and our value is not in the shape of our bodies or how closely we resemble the Instagram models we follow. What if those of us with health issues allowed winter to be the time we take to care for ourselves, review how our lifestyle suits our bodies and really listen to what we needed for a change?

What if we explored what this phase of winter has to offer us, instead of grieving those things that it is taking away?

Rest. Reflection. Slowing down. Stillness. Renewal.

What can we find in these places to help us through this next phase of the year?

What are the hidden gifts in darkness and solitude?