Winter: The Season of Depression

This morning, in my daily email from Dr. Furhman, he wrote:

Winter is a common time to experience symptoms of depression. When the holidays are over and the weather is cold and dark, it is more common to feel sad, anxious, or hopeless. Whether one is experiencing a seasonal decline in mood or suffering from major depression, natural treatments have very high success rates, and are of course much safer than prescription drugs.

While I agree that the cold and dark of winter contribute to depression and hopelessness and that natural treatments can be highly effective, the medical world (not matter how alternative) always seems to omit the psycho-spiritual elements that also contribute to the winter blues (or PMS, postpartum depression and engagement anxiety). Mind affects body and body affects mind until many people find themselves feeling bleak about every aspect of their lives, from their primary relationship to their work life to the state of the world. So while light therapy, Vitamin D, a high-nutrient diet, and exercise have all been proven effective in combatting depression, it’s also essential to understand the ways in which the cycles of nature affect one’s mood.

Winter is the season of reflection. (For a visual depiction of the Seasons of Transition, click here.) It’s the time when Nature turns inward and invites us to follow suit and observe, without distraction, what lives inside. Against the blankness of winter’s backdrop, we spend more time inside our homes and inside our minds, and in the places of quiet and stillness, memory and reflection filter to the surface more readily. You may be sitting with a cup of tea, looking out the window at the nothingness, when a memory of your deceased grandparent appears. The memory might fill you with a bittersweet joy, where a happy memory collides with the pang of loss to open the well of grief where that particular memory resides.

In that moment, you have a choice: you can welcome in the pain of the grief and let yourself cry or breathe into it or you can get up, distract, and try to avoid the painful feelings. If depression, in a nutshell, is the result of the avoidance of feelings, the more times you brush away the pain of a buried memory, the more you lay the groundwork for depression to take hold. On the other hand, when you embrace the pain and allow it to move through you, you not only decrease the chances of depression grabbing hold but you clear out a layer of grief that was attached to that memory. Grieving comes in waves, and each life transition  – whether getting married, moving, dusk or winter – offers an opportunity to clear out and heal a piece of grief, thereby keeping your emotional body clear and available to experience the joy of the present moment. In other words, embedded in the melancholy mood of the winter is this gift of accessing deeper layers of grief and, therefore, deeper layers of healing.

The starkness of winter also reveals more clearly our wounded self and our propensity to project our fear, hopelessness, or despair onto others. Whether it’s winter illness that pulls you into your underground realms or the relentless days of cold and dark, if you look at the seasons of your life you might notice a pattern that reveals itself every winter. Perhaps it’s the time of year when you struggle most in your intimate relationship or struggle with your work identity. The opportunity here is to recognize the difference between real, authentic questioning versus the projection of your inner bleak state onto externals. If you find yourself doubting your marriage every winter but rarely during the other three seasons, you can see that projection is at work and the question to ask yourself is: What am I feeling inside that’s causing me to project negatively onto my marriage?

Once you recognize that the fear or despair begin within you, you can take ownership of it and do the hard work of working with fear. For while there may be issues in your marriage or work that need your attention, living in the fear-mind or negative-mind won’t help you address the issues. Like digging your car out from beneath an avalanche of snow, fear-work requires you to remove the heavy piles, chip through the ice, and connect back into your core place of love, faith, and hope. It’s harder to do in winter, but that’s part of what makes this time of year potentially rich and growth-producing.

The gift of transitions is that they illuminate our core issues and provide an opportunity to heal them at a deeper level. In the pared-down and vulnerable state that defines the transitional state, the core issue – whether it be a propensity toward fear, worry, negativity, perfectionism or self-doubt – rises to the surface of your psyche like silt on the surface of a creek. Then you have the choice: you can ignore the difficult feelings or you can sift through the silt with your metal pan of consciousness and, with enough time and attention, you might find flecks of gold there. The trap is to think that “if only my partner were different or the state of the world were transformed then I wouldn’t feel ______.” The truth is that the unwanted feeling lives inside you. Winter is merely a reflection, a time when the feeling is crystallized and you’re presented with a potent opportunity to learn to respond differently.

4 comments to Winter: The Season of Depression

  • Kathryn

    Love it! I actually live in a pretty warm climate, so I wouldn’t say I’m experiencing winter blues (I always go through that when the days shorten in Oct) but I still love reading your thoughts on transitions! I find it very helpful because I worry so much. I worry about things that aren’t even happening! Ultimately, my worry/fear translates into negative thinking, which then leads to obsessing on a thought that isn’t worth my time. It’s like I make up problems. Your blogs remind me to think positively and also that I’m in control of my thoughts – not the other way around. Until recently, I never realized how good I was about dwelling on what’s wrong rather than what’s right. I think it’s safe there; it’s so much easier to hold others responsible for your happiness when you’re in that place. Now here I am, with so many positive things going on in my life, but still I worry! Anyway, I liked reading this because lately I’ve so badly been trying to live day by day and rid myself of fear. I’m in a great/healthy relationship, but still worry about all that could go wrong. When I share my fears with my boyfriend, he’ll reply, “well that’s not happening now. How about we’ll deal with that when and if it’s ever a real issue?” He’s patient with me and handles my worried mind appropriately. Anyway, thanks for sharing and helping. Keep em’ coming. 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing that, Kathryn, and I’m so glad the posts are helpful. Some good questions to ask when you’re in worry-mind are, “What would happen if I stopped worrying? Would I worry about something else or would I feel joyous and spacious inside?” Sometimes the worry-mind is a protection against feeling pain, loneliness, grief, etc – like an addiction. And sometimes it’s just a bad habit, and when you practice letting it go you find an increase in spaciousness. I find it to be a very complicated but worthwhile practice!

  • KD

    Thank you so much for this post. I think this is an important time of year to really reflect and then release. Turn inwards but begin to let go as well. I am finding that I am afraid of the solitude, but welcome it at the same time. It’s odd how both things can co-exist.

    Like Kathryn, I, too, have to remind myself to think positively. Not to get all Oprah on you, but to write down things in my own personal gratitude journal, or just remind myself of all the blessings I have. It really makes those worries diminish when you acknowledge all the good things you do have.

  • Gratitude really is one of the most important antidotes to anxiety and depression. I, too, have to remind myself to focus on gratitude and actively make a list when anxiety takes hold!