Wintering: Navigating Seasonal Transitions with Intention

Transitions can be tough

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.

The Two Types of 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?

Preparing for Winter

Seeing the Beauty of Winter

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.

Identifying the Rest You Need

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:

  1. Physical Rest: Passive, like naps, or active, like stretching or gentle movement)
  2. Mental Rest: Turning off your brain. Take breaks in the day to slow down. Write down your thoughts before bed.⁣⁣⁣
  3. Sensory Rest: Breaks from noise, bright lights, screens. Close your eyes for 1 min. Plan intentional unplugged time in the evenings. ⁣⁣⁣
  4. Creative Rest: Free time for awe, inspiration, and flow. This means things like nature, art, play, and beauty.
  5. Emotional Rest: Time to feel your feelings and cut back on people-pleasing. ⁣⁣⁣
  6. Social Rest: Engaging more with people who value you, and less with those who exhaust you. ⁣⁣⁣
  7. Spiritual Rest: The ability to connect beyond the physical and mental. Seeking out a deep sense of love, belonging, acceptance, and purpose.

Tips for a Graceful Winter Transition

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:

  • Release stress through exercise, time outdoors, chopping wood, etc
  • Connect with others for support, like setting up video calls to catch up with friends
  • Use structure and accountability to keep doing the things that make us feel better even when we don't feel like it
  • Seek out practices of pleasure, joy, gratitude, and play to help us remember that it's not all darkness, even if it might feel like it for a while
  • Find mindset and mental health tools that work for you (e.g., journaling), so that you can feel your feelings and move through them to avoid overwhelm
  • Lean into the joy and comfort of warm blankets, sweaters, reading books, hot tea, warm baths, and all things cozy
  • Listen to the Outdoor Explorers Podcast Changing Seasons - Using Fall to Prepare for Winter episode, where I have a discussion about transitioning from Summer to Winter and how we can do it in a more mindful way.

And here are some practical tips especially to help with cold weather and dark days:

  • Use a sunrise clock, especially if you live somewhere with late sunrise - if you need help finding one, check out my quest for the perfect sunrise alarm clock
  • Consider taking a vitamin D supplement, if medically appropriate
  • Incorporate bright colors into your life: wear bright clothing or bring colorful art into your space
  • Plan a winter trip somewhere warm and sunny that you can look forward to
  • If you have household tasks due to the changing seasons, like getting out winter bedding or putting away the gardening supplies, try doing those things mindfully: think of those acts not so much as chores, but as meaningful rituals to usher in the season

Resources for Coping with Grief and Loss

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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