Everything in life happens in cycles, in both nature and our inner worlds. Not everything can be a time of high-energy growth like summer. Seasons change, whether we want them to or not, and some seasons bring a slower pace.
If winter is hard for you, you’re not alone. It’s normal and common to be affected by the dark, cold seasons. Changing seasons can be hard! We can get comfortable in the season we’re in and we don’t want it to end. But we can learn to get through those tough changes with grace.
Let’s talk about how to navigate both natural and personal winters.
There are two types of winter transitions we’ll talk about. First, we have the literal changing of the seasons that we in the Northern Hemisphere are moving toward right now. Temperatures drop, the days are shorter, and the sun is weaker. During winter, we often sleep more. We might not want to leave the house as much. Our overall mood and energy levels can be lower.
Emotional winters can happen any time of year. This kind of metaphorical winter can come around for so many different reasons. These winters of the heart don’t follow a set schedule or length, but are also marked by feelings of slowing down, quiet, and even loneliness.
Grief, loss, and heartbreak, are common sources of our own personal winters. For instance, maybe we just went through a tough breakup or divorce. Maybe we lost a friendship–platonic friend “breakups” come with deep heartbreak, too. Grief from the death of a loved one–human or animal–can also send us into deep winters. Before that, anticipatory grief when a loved one is terminally ill can be deeply affecting. Struggles with our own health are big, too, like injury or chronic illness. Professional grief can also affect us deeply, like the loss of a job, a betrayal or moral injury at work, or even loss of confidence and purpose in our careers.
Whether it’s winter on the calendar or winter in our hearts, what do we do when winter comes knocking?
A lot of times, our first instinct is to fight against the coming of winter. We want to pretend it’s not happening or resist our natural urges to slow down. Don’t try to make winter into a cold, snowy version of summer! Or, if you’re in a time of emotional winter, there’s no need to force yourself to be high-energy and happy all the time. Instead, embrace winter as a season of rest, one we can prepare for and enter with intention.
Preparing for winter is all around us. Squirrels bury nuts and seeds, hidden all over. Pika spend their days collecting little bits of plants for their winter dens. Bears gorge themselves on salmon and berries to gain hundreds of pounds before hibernation. And they do all this before winter, so that winter is a peaceful time when their lives slow down.
It’s easy to think of winter as a time when things die off, but winter is actually full of life! Life just takes on a different look and feel during this time.
Leaves don’t fall because the tree is dying, but because it is saving energy. Fallen leaves are teeming with insects who call the leaf litter home. Bare trees provide food storage and habitat for rodents, birds, and other small animals. Many trees actually have already formed buds for next spring, they’re just closed up and waiting for the right moment.
So when you’re in the middle of winter, remember that you too are fully alive even during this chapter. Life just looks a little different, and it can help to acknowledge the winter season as beautiful and valuable, too.
Wintering is all about rest and slowing down. There’s so much pressure in our culture to always be productive, always be high energy, and never slow down. But we need seasons of rest! Slowing down is so important for our wellbeing.
The practice of resting can take many forms, and different kinds of rest and recovery may be valuable at different times. Dr. Saundra Dalton Smith invites us to consider seven types of rest:
We can use a strategy called coping ahead to face the coming transition head-on. You can look forward to this potentially tough winter coming at you and put practices in place so it's not as hard.
Here are some ideas on how to cope ahead for both seasonal winter and emotional winters:
And here are some practical tips especially to help with cold weather and dark days:
As we transition from warm, bright days into the darker half of the year, we can honor this transition. This can be a cathartic way to process our feelings around the changing seasons. Traditionally, this time of year is marked with celebrating the end of fall harvest and honoring the dead.
Participating in ritual and tradition can be a great source of comfort. Ritual can help us to accept the changing of the seasons as well as support us through times of loss and sadness.
Day of the Dead and All Souls Day are right around the corner. If you’ve been through loss, this can be a good time to create space for grief and honor the memories of your loved ones. Some areas hold community events in observance of the holiday, such as the All Souls Procession in Tucson, Arizona. Grieving in community can be a very cathartic and healing experience, if it’s available to you. As the season shifts from light to dark, coming together in community to recognize this change can be a powerful way to honor the transition into winter.
Finally, if you’re in a period of heartbreak, grief, or another type of sadness, here are a few resources we recommend:
“If happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too. Perhaps through all those years at school, or perhaps through other terrors, we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.”
― Katherine May, Wintering: The power of rest and retreat in difficult times
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