There are so many things about modern life I love, not the least being instantaneous heat, light and a long, hot bath. Winter solstice, which marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, is a great reminder that things have not always been so effort-less.
As it’s so much easier to stay warm, access diverse foods all year round and be bathed in light at the flick of the switch, celebrating the solstice might seem outdated. But despite the comparative comfort of every day life, many people still struggle with winter.
Sad and isolated
Less sunlight (and the corresponding drop in vitamin D) is a major trigger for feeling flat in the darker months If you’re usually even tempered this dip in mood can be confusing but for those who already struggle with depression, winter can be devastating.
While science has labelled this phenomena seasonal affective disorder (aptly abbreviated to S.A.D.), there are other biological and sociological reasons why some struggle at this time of year.
We are innately social creatures who crave connection. Through the warmer, sunnier months we tend to go out more; have barbecues and picnics with friends, and generally spend more time out in the world. When the weather drives us inside there can be fewer spontaneous opportunities to connect. While some people enjoy the opportunity for more peace, quiet and reflection, for others it can trigger loneliness, anxiety or depression.
Slouching through winter
There’s also a tendency to exercise less during winter. It takes a degree of discipline and hardiness to get up early for a swim or a run, on cold and dark mornings. While we might be aware that big bursts of exercise can trigger the release of happy hormones, research has discovered that spending more time simply sitting or slouching tends to make us feel blue.
According to this fascinating study our posture, such as when we walk in the rain with our head hanging down or sit slumped on the sofa, can sap our energy and even make us feel depressed. Conversely, skipping helps us feel energised and can lift our mood.
Winter brings many treasures, if we seek them.
As an ambivert I relish introverted quiet times, as much as I enjoy connecting with others.
Solstice can provide a pause, an opportunity to acknowledge that life is nuanced, and embrace the darker parts of our interior life. Without over pathologising our feelings, it’s normal to experience a full range of emotions. However, we’re bombarded with messages that being anything less than happy is abnormal.
Creating some space, or a ritual, around the winter solstice to check in with how we’re really feeling can be illuminating. Exploring these feelings without judgement, can offer insight and even provide impetus for change.
Prompts for solstice reflections
“Christmas in July” is the closest thing to a winter celebration in the Southern Hemisphere. But there are many other ways to create a solo or group ritual to embrace the longest night of the year.
The solstice (or any winter’s night) can also be used as a prompt to reflect on issues we might actively or unconsciously be avoiding. It can be insightful and rewarding to put aside an evening, or even an hour, for nurturing and self-exploration.
Ideally, begin this exercise by creating a warm and cosy environment. It can also help to do something relaxing such as meditating, stretching or just closing your eyes and slowing down your breath for a couple of minutes.
If finding time alone to create a ritual is challenging, simply have a bath, meditate or grab a journal, and use the following questions as a guide for reflection. It’s important to approach this exercise with gentleness and self-love. If you become aware of negativity and judgment, stop and slow your breath.
How do I really feel about my life right now? What would make me feel more connected and valued? Is there anything that’s holding me back that I want to let go of? If I had no fears, how would I live differently? What am I willing to change? What tools/support do I need to make these changes? What am I most proud of about myself ?
Finish the reflection by writing down everything that you’re grateful for. It might be as simple as feeling warm and well fed but it’s important to also include the people who’re most important to you and what they bring to your life. Lastly, kindly consider yourself and think of at least three things to thank yourself for.
Natural remedies for the winter solstice
Though marking the beginning of the earth’s journey back to summer, the solstice is really the beginning of our true winter. With more cool weather to come, it’s a good time to amp up your self-care.
Move your body more: skip (like the research suggests), dance around the living room, check your posture frequently and generally move more often.
Romance the bed: use the longer nights as a cue to get to bed earlier. Winter is the perfect time to sleep, dream and cuddle.
Vitamin D: we need a lot of exposed skin and time in the sun to make the vitamin D we need at this time of year. Most people who work indoors (with limited skin exposure to direct sunlight) are unlikely to generate enough. Low vitamin D is linked to depression and sleep disturbance, as well as an increased risk of developing many cancers. Check out this guide to how much vitamin D you need.
Herbs: St John’s wort, with its bright yellow flowers, is often referred to as the sunshine herb. I love prescribing this herb for the winter blues. However it’s contraindicated to be taken with many medications. As there are also issues with getting the best quality and correct dosage of herbs that are available over the counter, it’s best to consult a herbalist/naturopath to find the right winter herbs for you.
Nature: walking in the winter landscape is a sensory experience, with aromas released by the rain and the lush shades of green. Spending time in the natural environment is good for us, at any time of year.