Autumn Prep for Winter Pep
All of you in the northern hemisphere, I have news for you. It’s nearly autumn.
I know as you read this and scramble to soak up the last of the summer sun, you’re thinking, ‘for crying out loud, it’s only the 12th of September!’. And yet, you also realize the days have gotten away from you and it’s time to face reality.
For me, autumn feels like the shortest season, probably because I spend so much time preparing for winter, making winter seem like it’s suspended in time. But if you experience cold winters, you know how important that preparation is. As we northerners prepare our homes in anticipation of spending more time indoors, most of us
forget that we also need to prepare our body and mind. Before I get into my top techniques for beating the winter blues, let’s consider what changes we observe in nature that alert us it’s actually time to prepare ourselves for the months ahead.
We’re familiar with the signs, but what actually happens?
Ah, autumn! Those gorgeous reds, oranges and yellows of nature. The crisp morning air tells you it’s the beginning of soup and sweater weather. Warm afternoons mean dressing in light layers. It’s also that time of year to draft-proof our windows and doors, stack firewood, fill fuel tanks, pack away summer clothes and make our homes feel cozy as we hunker down for winter. But even before you feel a temperature change drastic enough for wearing warmer clothing, the signs are there. Nature has a way of showing us what to do and when to do it. So even if you’re personally not in touch with the subtle changes, you are witness to those who are. One look at the leaves drifting out of the trees or a neighborhood squirrel caching a surplus of nuts can tell you it’s time to begin preparing your own home – and yourself. Understanding what happens during this time is important so you know what you can do to prepare your body and mind.
We attribute autumn with the equinox and understand there are fewer daylight hours to enjoy. But it’s not just a decreased quantity of sunlight that happens. The quality of the sun is also different. And although the quality of the sun in autumn is equivalent to that in spring, there is a noticeable difference between summer and autumn, and even more between summer and winter.
In the summer when the sun is higher in the sky, each beam of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface is concentrated, so we experience an intensity of light. However, as the seasons change and the sun’s position is lower in the sky, each beam of sunlight is spread over a larger area and so is less concentrated, meaning less heat can be absorbed. Without being aware of it, our bodies and minds respond to it. The sun literally does not feel the same in autumn or winter as it does in summer. And as we don’t have the same quality of sun, it doesn’t trigger the same physiological and psychological responses in us. Furthermore, even if you love colder weather and take advantage of what sun there is, your skin is still not getting the same level of sun exposure simply because more of your skin is covered. All of this can be a problem in the coming months so the below techniques for beating the winter blues will come in handy now!
The science behind the signs.
Sunlight triggers the release of serotonin, that mood enhancing neurotransmitter that makes us feel good, calmer, more focused and contributes to sleep. So why is this important? Because, in addition to other body sites (brain, gut, platelets), serotonin is present in the cutaneous tissue, the deepest layer of our skin. It is also detected, along with serotonin transporters, in human keratinocytes, the predominant cell type in the epidermis. This leads to the deduction that when exposed to the sun, our skin can produce serotonin and transport it throughout our bodies, enhancing our mood.
By autumn, after months of sun exposure, our bodies are serotonin rich. We feel great, upbeat and focused – making it difficult to imagine we won’t be feeling these same levels of energy and positivity six months from now. As we move through autumn and winter, our body’s exposure to the sun is limited, reducing our levels of serotonin production and transmission, affecting our mood and energy levels.
This is akin to the production of the hormone, auxin in trees. In autumn, with the cooler temperatures and shorter days, the production of auxin reduces, causing the bond between leaf and branch to weaken enough for the leaf to fall. Reasons for this change are:
- The tree spends less energy through colder weather
- The tree is able to conserve moisture within the trunk keeping it hydrated
- Without leaves, the wind is able to blow through the branches more easily, putting less strain on the tree.
And we humans respond to this same change. Just as nature’s response is to let go of unnecessary clutter and retreat from the surface, hibernate, enter dormant stage, harvest and horde, we understand the importance of following this same rhythm. So, we do all of those things to prepare our homes. What we’re not so aware of though, is preparing our bodies and our minds for what happens internally.
5 Techniques for beating the Winter Blues
Here are five of my favorite techniques for beating the winter blues — the stress, anxiety, motivation, concentration and energy levels that rear their ugly heads in the middle of winter. Practicing them now will develop the muscle memory for when you need it most. You’ll find you are prepared to recognize the triggers that lead to these emotional responses and reset your mind before they become a problem.
1. Intentional Breathing
most of your breathing is unintentional; an involuntary reflex necessary to keep your brain alive and your body functioning. Intentional breathing is a technique used to help reduce stress. Controlled breathing affects levels of the neurotransmitter and stress hormone, noradrenaline. When we are stressed, we produce too much noradrenaline and when we are sluggish, we produce too little; both make it difficult to focus. However, there is a noradrenaline production sweet spot when our emotions, thinking and memory are clearest. Controlled, focused breathing helps to regulate the production of noradrenaline, keeping it in this sweet spot.
Practice It — Box Breathing. This is an excellent technique to practice now so by winter when sun levels and quality is at an annual low and you’re at your slowest, you will already have this technique down to a science!
- Sit with your back supported in a comfortable chair and with your feet on the floor.
- Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four. Feel the air enter your lungs.
- Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Avoid inhaling or exhaling for four seconds, but don’t clamp your mouth or nose shut.
- Begin to slowly exhale for four seconds.
- Repeat steps 1-3 at least three times. If you can, try to repeat the steps for four minutes.
If you find the technique challenging, try counting to three instead of four.
2. Experiencing Nature
Naturalistic sounds and green environments have long been attributed to promoting relaxation and having a profound impact on our brains and behaviour. Interacting with nature for as few as 10 minutes can be incredibly beneficial to our mental wellbeing. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your overall physical wellbeing by reducing blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. Experiencing nature is not limited to the outdoors! Even by having an indoor plant can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety.
Practice it – 5 Impacts Nature has on Our Brains and Bodies
- Decreases Stress—Walking through a forest has been shown to significantly lower heart rates and heart rate variability.
- Makes you Happier—Walking in nature encourages you to experience less anxiety and rumination (focused attention on negative feelings about yourself).
- Increases Creativity—Being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can help be more open to creativity and problem solving.
- Increases Capacity for Kindness and Generosity—Even just exposure to scenes of nature increases our positive emotions inspiring act of kindness.
Help Improve Short-Term Attention Functioning—a 2008 study3 published in Psychological Science suggested even just looking at photos of nature improves attention functioning in after short exposure to photos of nature.
Mindfulness is simply paying more attention to the present moment both internally and externally. It gives you the chance to connect to your internal emotional state and understand how your thoughts drive your emotions and behaviour.
Practice it – Five Senses mindfulness exercise, a quick and easy exercise to bring awareness to the current moment. All you need to do is notice something you are experiencing with each of the five senses.
- Notice 5 things you can see. Look around and bring your attention to five things you can see. Pick something you don’t normally notice, like the light on an object or a shadow.
- Notice 4 things you can feel. Bring awareness to four things you currently feel. Notice the texture of your shirt, humidity on your skin, the surface of what you are resting your hands on.
- Notice 3 things you can hear. Take a moment to listen to the sounds around you. Note three things you hear. This can be a sound near to you or faint sounds from a distance.
- Notice 2 things you can smell. Bring your awareness to smells that you normally filter out (pleasant or unpleasant). This could be a smell carried by a breeze if you’re outside, the smell of your pet or the lingering smell of your last cooked meal.
- Notice 1 thing you can taste. Focus on one thing you can taste in this very moment. You can take a sip of a drink or eat something. Notice the taste in your mouth.
As with mindfulness, meditation has many benefits and can sharpen your attention, increase resiliency to stress, improve mental health and cultivate compassion. By practicing consistent, regular meditation you can develop a stable awareness. Instead of focusing your attention on one thing as you do with mindfulness meditation is more about focusing your attention on nothing. Just five minutes of meditation a day is enough to help clear the mind, improve mood, boost brain function, reduce stress and support a healthy metabolism.
Practice it – 5 minutes of meditation. Here is a quick self-guided meditation by Hilary Nicholls to help you live with patience and ease.
Grounding Tree Meditation Script
- Close your eyes. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Take a few deep, slow breaths.
- Now imagine yourself in a beautiful forest, walking around in wonder until you discover your grandmother tree. Sit down upon the earth amongst her roots in a special notch that’s been waiting for you. Lean your back against her trunk, letting yourself feel fully supported.
- Breath in, feeling grateful to receive your grandmother tree’s strength, resilience, ancient wisdom and protection. Feel these qualities fill your body and heart—your entire being—as you nestle further into her embrace.
- With every exhale release any stress, worry, or tension. Continue to breathe, slowly and deeply, as you feel the beauty of your connection with your grandmother tree, and through her, all of nature.
- When you are ready, slowly open your eyes and look gently around. Remember your grandmother tree. Thank her for bringing you back to your true nature of peace and connection.
This script along with a seven-minute guided audio grandmother tree meditation can be found in Spirituality Health.
5. The power of ‘No’
It’s a short, powerful word. It can be delivered with force, compassion, even with hesitancy. For many, it is probably one of the most difficult words to say. Yet it can be empowering, liberating and a confidence builder. Practicing saying No is practicing self-care. By not taking on additional tasks and responsibilities you create space for yourself to rest and recharge. It gives you a chance to focus on you and activities that align with your current goals. It also gives you a chance to create boundaries – with colleagues, family and even friends. Practice makes perfect. So, get out there and spend time with it.
Practice it – Get to know the word No.
Think about the last few things to which you said yes when you could have said no. Consider how much stress this added to your day or life. Did doing it mean putting something else off you need to do for you? As you move through the coming days promise to give yourself the time and space to say No.
Don’t respond so quickly. If possible, explain you’ll need time to consider before answering. Then ask yourself these five questions:
- Will saying yes prevent me from focusing on something that’s more important?
- Does this potential project, opportunity, or activity align with my values, beliefs, and goals?
- What are my core values, beliefs, and current goals?
- Will saying yes make me even more tired or burnt out?
- Will saying yes be good for my mental health? Or will it worsen my symptoms?
Practice saying no with gratitude and kindness. You’ll be amazed at how liberating it can be!
1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3779905/; 2 https://forestryandland.gov.scot/blog/trees-in-autumn; 3https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19121124/