Struggling since the clocks changed?
It's at this time of year that many people can experience an unexplained drop in mood, energy and optimism. We don't really know if it's to do with falling light levels and the harsher weather but it seems likely that, as animals, we are deeply connected to these seasonal changes and what they mean. As the coming winter reminds us, on a deeply primitive level, of our vulnerability to elemental forces, unconscious anxieties about our own mortality are inevitably triggered, with questions about the meaning and value of our lives.
Halloween, bonfire night, Christmas and the older winter festivals that proceeded them can be understood as our way of fending off those dark thoughts. The sensory pleasures of food and warmth sooth and replenish the spirit. Halloween's playfulness might make us feel better about the things that scare us, and Christmas can be a sanctuary of religious faith and family to which we can return with comforting regularity.
While we may not all enjoy or be able to access the festivities on offer, research shows that low mood and depression respond well to communal activities, talking and relating to others. At a time of 'hibernation', venturing out to spend time with others may feel impossible, but it is important for our emotional well-being. People traditionally sought ways to come together because it helped them with the dark outside, and also perhaps the dark within. Traditions of feasting, decorating and gathering around the fire help us because more than anything else they are about shared stories, community and human connection.
Relationships and interaction are crucial to mental health, whether that be deep intimate connections or simply chatting in the corner shop. In the summer months, casual contact with neighbours and acquaintances can happen easily, while walking the dog or washing the car. We are more inclined to travel, in order visit family or catch up with friends further afield, when the days are longer. Outdoor activities that help sustain us are likely to be dropped as the weather deteriorates. Even getting out for the evening feels like hard work when it's dark and cold outside.
As human animals, it is likely that we are sensitive to the seasonal shift in ways that we don't easily understand, but that still impact us. Lowered energy levels could point towards a natural need for rest, in order to conserve calories; similarly an increased interest in richer foods, to build up our reserves! Staying indoors makes us feel warm and safe from 'predators' - close to food and fire. Yet for the human animal, this creates a conflict because for us, being out in the world, exercising, being productive and sociable are central to well being, especially when we are emotionally depleted.
There is nothing wrong with slowing down the pace of life as the year slows to its end. Indeed the Danish concept of 'hygge', now well known as the culture of cosiness during the cold, rests on the idea of peace and well being, and many people do find contentment at this time of year. For others though, withdrawing into the home means a withdrawing into the self that can be lonely and as grey as the November sky. This might be something you have learned to live with, as a temporary dip that you know won't last for ever. You can alleviate some of the low feelings by including where possible some more social and outdoor activities. At the same time, try to forgive yourself if all you can manage, most days, is the sofa, and remember it won't last.
Hanging in there until spring won't be enough for everyone though. This time of year might be a trigger for deep troubling thoughts or feelings that overwhelm you. Don't sit in the darkness alone with distressing emotions; try to reach out to others so that you can bring some light into that part of your world. You might also think about therapy of some sort. Counselling offers a warm, safe, shared space with another human being, where the inner darkness can be explored together.
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About Katie Leatham
My name is Katie Leatham and I am an accredited, registered BACP counsellor working in Sussex. I work with all people including children and young people, couples and individuals, helping with a range of issues. I specialise in counselling for parents and especially mothers with postnatal depression and anxiety, or other family relationship issues.