Monday, November 7, 2011

Why Winter Is the Scariest Time of Year

This time of year is the scariest for me.

Living in the middle of North America means now is when snow comes, and the number of hours of daylight greatly decrese. Today, for example, we have only 9.5 hours of daylight. Over the last weekend we went back from daylight savings time to standard time, which means sunset is at 4:57 pm, rather than an hour later. And snow, thankfully, has come for the first time overnight, rather than off and on in late October and early November as it normally does.

All in all, we've done relatively well. As a life-long resident in these parts I have little to complain about. Even today, the temperature will hang around the freezing mark, and looks prepared to do so for the rest of the week.

So what's the big problem?

First of all, I am a heat freak. When the temperature pushes through the high 20s into the 30s (high 70s into the 90s in the Fahrenheit world) I feel so much more alive. Yes, I sweat, yet I relish the heat and the humidity, the way it feels on my skin, the nuanced shifts in smell and sound. I walk out of doors on a hot day, and feel warm, moist air embrace me - it is nature's hospitality. On the brightest of days, in the noon-hour sun I reach my arms to the sky with a child-like exuberance.

But my great affinity for summer extremes doesn't answer the question of why I am fearful, even now as I am writing.

As much as my spirit soars in summer, it seemingly stumbles along the ground in late fall and winter. Meaning, in other words, that it crashes.

Removing all conceit from the above statements, meaning that my chronic depression (aggravated a few years ago by a life tragedy) becomes much less managable, and more acute. My psychiatrist and I both agree I am susceptible to seasonal affective disorder - so called SAD - which is believed be a function of the amount and intesity of light decreasing during the winter months. I use a 10,000 lux SAD lamp therapeutically, and as my normal desk lamp, during this time of year. (Other practical ways for coping with winter are in list form near the end of this post).

I am most aware at this time of the contradictions of my unending dance with depression in its various forms - in the last few years becoming sufficiently serious that I have fantasizied periodically about suicide (please not use of word fantasize - and be assured it is not going to happen) - which come from being the guy who as a chaplain and a therapist helps others.

Interestingly, though, in my work I have not gravitated toward working with people whose main issue is depression, which seems to be a favourite among chaplains and therapists but, rather, those whose issues arise from major traumatic events, repeated many times, including childhood sexual abuse, combat experiences, torture, kidnapping, and other kinds of violence.

The contradiction of being a wounded healer is compounded by my involvement with mindfulness. I am a strong proponent of mindfulness, and was an advocate of meditation and spiritual practice back in the 70s before the splendid work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others began to provide reams of empirical data validating mindfulness from a scientific perspective. And as the reams piled up, they began to include results of brain imaging studies, which further validated mindfulness as a way to reduce stress, increase awareness, cope with psychological and physical pain, and to overcome - wait for it! - depression.

Undoubtedly mindfulness helps with all those things, and God only knows where I'd be today if I didn't practice it. But mix in some probable brain injury stuff from when I was in our city's top private  school and we used to make a game of seeing how hard we could beat each other over the head with hard cover textbooks, and some issues I have with regard to task persistence, executive function, and consistency become easier to understand.

And so, at this time of year, the changes in the environment, and my issues, become more acute, create a trail of anticipatory dis-ease which begins in September, leading on to some of the most stuck, down, painful days imaginable in December, January, and February. With bills to be paid, social relationships to be tended to, and other daily living tasks to be done it all becomes scary.

I'm not writing this so you all will feel sorry for me, and start saying "poor Daly." But writing is therapeutic in itself. And as I thought about writing this, I thought of others who may feel very much the same about the cold, dark time of year. Yesterday I thought about it a lot because it was the first day of standard time, and we knew snow was on the way as temperatures fell. I also had a toothache which was no help at all.

As a believer in serendipity, crappy as I felt yesterday, I felt my exuberance rising by a timely reminder about the value of mindfulness. It came in the form of blog post called Mindfulness Exercises ~ Just One Minute Could Save Your Sanity. Do read that blog post and, if you're like me, you need to print it and place it somewhere you can't help but see it everyday

The writer was aiming for those of us who may be at the point of over whelm, of where we are losing a sense of being in control, of losing a belief in our own sanity, and said:

Just 1 Minute of Mindfulness Per Day…

A mindfulness exercise can start with simply sitting down, relaxing and breathing deeply through your nose. Close your eyes and focus on your breath going in and out. After a few minutes, move your attention to your body, one part at a time, noting sensations of cold, hot, tight, soreness and anything else you identify. In a few minutes, start listening to sounds in the room, without thinking about them. Just listen.

There's more to mindfulness than that, but in terms of what you need to know to begin to benefit from it, not much more! And that is good news, because the process is simple. One minute a day, at a time when one feels rock bottom, can break the pattern. We know from various brain studies that a minute of mindfulness creates a positive shift in our brain's workings. In other words, that one minute of mindfulness, though expressed as a small measure of time, is a large dose of hope.

So I heartily recommend the blog:  Mindfulness ExercisesMindfulness Exercises For Brain Relaxation from which the post on One Minute a Day came.

What are some ways of offsetting fear for those of us who seem to cave in when the days grow darker and the snow falls?
  • Regular mindfulness practice - if you don't know how to practice it, and want to learn more, the best beginner's book is Mindfulness for Dummies by Shamash Alidina, which will be reviewed here in a few days time. Buy it, read it, follow its suggestions.
  • Keeping track of all that needs to be done, and make sure your day planning is done the night before, so there's little or no wheel spinning at the top of a new day. In winter it is too easy to get stuck, both in the car and metaphorically.
  • Physical exercise - one way I manage my depression and wheel spinning is through regular time-outs through the day to do pushups, use Heavy Hand weights, work out with elastic tubes, take walks, and so on.
  • Hard as it may seem for folks like us who are summer freaks - make a point to get outdoors, even on the coldest days. Such determination, defiance even, makes us feel less like prisoners. And there's always the chance of finding a winter walk enjoyable, or appreciating the way frost delicately clings to the bare branches.
 Looking at the options, taking time to breath, to be mindful in the moment, makes the prospect of winter a little less scary for me - and I hope, for you.

For a wide range of books related to mindfulness use this link to Amazon. Any purchases through the link will help to cover the costs of this blog.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Daly.

    I, too, get depressed when the weather changes. I love summer, having the windows open, and being outdoors. Winter means being cooped up (you won't find me walking outdoors in winter!) and it means a lack of life (meaning look at trees that have lost their leaves, etc.)

    As I can't just sleep thru it as the cat tends to do, I find the only way for me to get thru winter is to have several trips planned that get me away from routine. Next one is on Nov 25th, so looking forward to that.

    I'll check out that Mindfulness site you've mentioned. It sounds interesting and useful.

    Doreen Pendgracs

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