“This season of the year grinds the very soul out of me. My nerves lose their tone, my teeth ache, and my courage falls to the bottomless bottom of infinitude.”
– Henry Adams in a letter to Charles Milnes Gaskell, 1869
Are there days, weeks or months that you feel like Henry Adams? We are fortunate to have well-insulated homes, snow plows, running water and indoor plumbing but the dark days of winter can still “grind the very soul” out of us. Most people who live in northern latitudes experience some seasonal changes. Winter blues and seasonal affective disorder are terms used to describe the spectrum of more problematic and serious symptoms experienced as the days grow shorter.
Seasonal changes may include difficulty concentrating and processing information, overwhelm, irritability, anxiety or a depressive mood. Pain, an achy flu-like feeling, exacerbation of fibromyalgia symptoms, fatigue, disturbed sleep (either too much or too little or poor quality), sweet cravings, lowered sex drive and less desire to socialize are all part of the change in brain chemicals that can occur with changing light.
One of the most powerful tools that yoga has to offer to deal with seasonal change symptoms is breath-centered movement and breathing practices. The breath can be manipulated in different ways to energize, focus, and lift mood.
Try this experiment: From a seated or standing position, inhale as you simultaneously take your arms out to the side and up and overhead. Exhale as you bring the arms back down. Then progressively lengthen your inhale every repetition over the course of six repetitions. An early morning yoga posture practice that emphasizes lengthening inhalation can help change symptoms of low energy, lack of focus and depressed mood.
Are anxieties and sleep issues a problem for you during the winter? A practice later in the day that emphasizes gentle, soothing postures and a focus on lengthening exhale may soothe irritability, anxiety and stress. When I work with clients who have seasonal changes, a variety of short practices to help manage different symptoms are often the most helpful.
Exercise, preferably earlier in the day in natural light, a strong cup of coffee in the morning, a diet that is rich in omega 3 fatty acids (flaxseed oil, salmon, sardines, etc.) and limits simple carbohydrates, stress management, good habits around sleep (no late night electronics!) and social outings with friends can also help manage seasonal changes.
It’s important to work with your health care provider if symptoms progress beyond what feels manageable. If you have trouble functioning at work, home or in your volunteer work, your personal relationships suffer and you have significant feelings of depression, including suicidal thoughts, it’s time to talk with your doctor. Light therapy, medication and therapy may be recommended to help you get through the winter.
If you can relate to Henry Adams, it’s good to get into a preventative routine of natural sunlight, exercise, yoga or other stress management practices, a healthy diet, fun social outings and a morning cup of coffee. Prevent symptoms if you can, manage symptoms that come up and seek the advice of your doctor if symptoms get overwhelming and you can’t escape to a sunny location.