How to embrace winter

As we approach the winter solstice, we notice how short the days are, with the dark nights closing in and the weather driving us indoors. Despite the bustle of Christmas, it's common to feel less inclined to venture far and to feel your mood change at this time of year.


The medical world terms this experience seasonal affective disorder or SAD for short. Symptoms include persistent low mood, feelings of despair, low energy, wanting to sleep more, having difficulty concentrating, craving certain foods and having less interest in sex. The medical understanding of why this occurs is linked to a decrease in the body's production of serotonin and melatonin, caused by there being fewer hours of daylight during winter months.

There are ways to counteract this effect, by using a daylight lamp, for example, or spending more time outside in the natural daylight where possible. The NHS also recommends talking therapy, such as counselling and I'd like to share my experience of how counselling can help with these feelings, at this time of year.

As a humanistic counsellor, I tend not to think of things in terms of being 'symptoms' but rather as experiences that might have meaning for us to learn from. To do this, I invite you to reflect on how life was for our ancestors, in pre-industrial Europe. At that time, people lived in more seasonal patterns than we do now, adjusting their activities to fit around the shorter hours of daylight, especially before the dawn of the electric light.

More time was spent indoors, engaging in less active, more reflective and sedentary activities. Animals too adopt different ways of being in the winter months, with many hibernating and slowing right down to conserve energy in the colder weather.

Somewhere along the way, we lost our connection to this natural rhythm, and as we can now maintain warm, bright conditions inside all year round, we no longer adjust ourselves to a slower way of being in the darker months. I wonder if the feelings of wanting to sleep more, not wanting to go out as much, having lower energy and less interest in things are all signs that we need to adjust our way of life during winter?

We tend to ask as much of ourselves in the winter as we do in the summer, when conditions are very different. This is particularly true in December when Christmas brings with it increased invitations to socialise, and long lists of things to buy, organise and achieve. While it may not be appropriate or desirable to opt out of these activities, it may be beneficial to also allow time for quiet, restful pursuits, to give the body and mind time to slow down and replenish.

Over the course of a calendar year, nature goes through a cycle of new life in spring, abundance in summer, a falling away in autumn and a dormant period in winter. In our lives, we can reflect on the cycles we also go through; times when we feel energised and full of ideas and potential, and times when we feel more inclined towards quiet reflection.

Women who are menstruating may be able to observe a similar pattern over the course of their monthly cycle. I believe there are real benefits to be found in embracing these cycles, and honouring the feelings that are predominant. Everything in nature is held in a beautiful balance. Over a 28-day period, the moon goes through a full cycle from new to full, with equal amounts of light and dark. These fluctuations in how we feel are normal and experienced by all of us, to some degree.

Counselling can be enormously helpful in helping restore the lighter, brighter feelings, but I also believe it can be just as valuable in offering somewhere to sit with some of the darker feelings.

Winter, with its long hours of darkness and cold weather, can more easily evoke feelings of sadness and loneliness. We tend to value emotions such as happiness and joy more highly because they feel more pleasurable, but all emotions are valid. Counselling can offer space to sit with those more difficult feelings, with a trusted professional, and come to understand the feelings better so that, when they come along, we feel less daunted by them. We do not necessarily need to 'fix' these feelings but it can be powerful to gain a better understanding of them by talking them through with a counsellor.

In his book, Dark Nights of the Soul, author Thomas Moore talks about how a dark time "may feel stagnant and unrhythmical, but it has its subtle movements.....[it] may be difficult to sense, but it may be present nonetheless. You may not be advancing, but you are in quiet motion." If we can embrace this time of quiet motion and subtle movement, there may be much to learn. Not least, we can learn the optimum ways to navigate through these times.

Perhaps this means saying no to invitations when you feel more like staying in and curling up under a blanket. Or perhaps you will learn that spending even five minutes each day outside observing the natural world helps you stay connected to the cycle of things, and recognise that the leaves always come back, and the sun always rises again.

And if you learn that you would like to lean further into allowing yourself more rest time, you might discover that getting changed into super comfy clothing in the evening sends your body a rest signal and encourages you to take it easy. Perhaps you might come to recognise that you find value in time alone, journalling or reading, giving you more capacity and enjoyment when spending time with others. You may also discover that you have greater resilience to make it through difficult periods than you realised. And you may find new ways of looking at things that increase your appreciation for the unique features of winter.

In counselling, I look at both the difficult feelings that winter can bring, as well as ways people can move through these feelings. I believe a balanced focus of acknowledging what is troubling us, and allowing time to explore, process and understand those feelings, alongside looking at the resources we have within and around us can be helpful. Ultimately, while the dark winter months can feel long, lonely and difficult, there is also peace, stillness and nurture to be found, and counselling can help achieve this balance.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Omagh BT78 & Farnham GU10
Written by Helen Farrell, BA (Hons), MBACP (Accred)
Omagh BT78 & Farnham GU10

I am a BACP Registered counsellor, certified embodied psychotherapist and meditation guide. I have a special interest in psychospirituality and working in harmony with nature and the seasons.

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