New Life in the Dead of Winter

Today is the day of the Winter Solstice, otherwise known as the longest night of the year. For those who follow earth-based spiritual paths, this can be a day of great spiritual significance.  It is a day to celebrate the returning of the sun’s warmth, as the days begin to lengthen.

It can be a time to look forward to new beginnings.  I usually use this time to think about my resolutions for the new year.  When engaging in holiday celebrations, surrounded by friends and family, resolutions are supported and encouraged.  It is very easy for me to say “This year, I will focus more on self-care.  This year, I will follow my inspirations.  I will make more time for the things that are most important to me.”

It’s easy to forget about these resolutions after the celebrations fade.  The trees get taken down, and everyone returns to their ordinary life.  The return to ordinary routine can seem jarring, when facing three more months of bitter cold.  We may have expectations for ourselves, that we will face the new year with renewed energy.  Meanwhile, the weather does not seem to be cooperating.  I often hear people joke that they want to “hibernate” this time of year.  There seems to be a basic, instinctive impulse toward reduced activity when sunlight is scarce.  No wonder we often experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, this time of year. Our bodies want a break, but we have to keep going!

I think about the Solstice, and the symbolism of the new-born sun.  How is this consistent with the lethargy and depression that can come in winter?  Very consistent, if one thinks about new-borns.  They don’t jump out of the womb and start undertaking a bunch of new tasks.  They must be nurtured, while they begin to grow and learn about how to experience the world.  That nurturance requires patience, doesn’t it?

With regards to “hibernation”, we can take lessons from other mammals with similar instincts.  A black bear gives birth to her cubs in late January or early February.  She does not push them out into the cold right away.  She holds them close until spring.  If we, like  the sun, are “reborn” in the winter…can we give  ourselves some added nurturing?  At the very least, can we cut ourselves a little slack?

If you’re noticing yourself experiencing winter “blahs”, it’s time to increase self-care.  There are very simple you can do for yourself.  For one thing, it’s important to get as much sunlight as possible.  Lack of sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency*, in addition to depression.  If you’re like many people, you might find that the sun has already set by the time your work day ends.  You can try taking a walk on your lunch break.  Not only does this give you exposure to sunlight…it also gives your body an opportunity to move.  That can be a tremendous benefit, all by itself.

It is also important to schedule things to look forward to.  If you’re stuck indoors, make time for indoor activities that you enjoy.  This is great time to focus on art projects, spiritual practices or anything that you find nourishing.  Schedule these activities before you get hit with the cold-weather blues.  That way, you don’t have to spend energy “planning” when you don’t have energy to spare.

Most importantly: don’t isolate.  People tend to gather together during the holidays, but they can lose contact after New Year’s.  This doesn’t have to happen.  You can arrange meetings with friends on a regular basis.  Most people enjoy getting together for board games or movies, and they’ll appreciate your efforts to plan these events.  Just don’t get yourself into a position where you’ll be overwhelmed.  It’s reasonable to ask for help with cooking and cleaning, and accept help when it’s offered.

There are, of course, times when depression gets severe enough that medication is necessary.  If you’re experiencing frequent suicidal thoughts, or you are unable to function in your day-to-day life, then it’s time to call the doctor.  There is no shame in that.  At the same time, there are often things we can do to prevent depression from getting to that point.   The key is to have compassion for ourselves as we navigate this journey through winter.  When we do this, winter can be an opportunity for self-exploration and renewal.

*Note:  taking a walk is no substitute for vitamin D supplements, if you have a serious deficiency.