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Dealing with the Darker Months: Wisdom from Chinese Medicine

Posted Jan 07 2011 1:39pm

When I was in college, I did a 6-month off-campus study program in India. Being so far south, the hot season was can’t-move hot, and during the “cold” season you might need a light sweater in the evening.

Living near the equator also meant that the length of the days didn’t change much at all from season to season. The sun rose at 6:30 AM and set at 6:30 PM, year-round. Of course, it took several months for me to notice this, but I was amazed how disorienting it was to be without the usual (for me) rhythm of long, luxurious summer days where it’s light until 9:00, and deep winter nights that begin in the midafternoon.

While I do love the seasons I grew up with, I’ll have to admit they can make it difficult to regulate energy and mood throughout the year. Sometime in October I start wanting to go to bed at 6:30. Usually that passes, but it remains harder for most of us to find the active energy and enthusiasm that seems so available in the lighter summer months.

Chinese medical texts recommend surrendering to these seasonal changes. Winter is a more “yin” time of year, marked by stillness, quiet, and more internal pursuits. It’s natural to sleep more, go out less, and attend to our home and personal lives. This time balances out the “yang” of summer, where we tend to be more active and engaged.

Still, it’s important to take care of our energy level and our spirits during this time of year. Slowing down is okay; exhaustion and unhappiness are not. Winter is an ideal time to focus on our own physical and mental health. Yet there are so many things that distract us from self-care: all the things we need to get done, first off, and then a culture that values productivity more than it values people. But the truth is we offer to the world what we have within ourselves, and so we need to care for that. Try making your well-being a priority this winter.

Here are my Top Four Ways to Thrive in the Winter:

1. Get as much light as you can. Early in the day is best, because it helps reset your internal clock. Going out for a walk early in the day can make a huge difference in your mood and energy. Another alternative is to use a light box. This is especially helpful if you suspect you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD (see sidebar). For more information on light therapy, go to www.cet.org
2. Schedule active time. You’re less likely to go out for a spontaneous bike ride after dinner, so it’s helpful to make standing plans to go out, exercise and/or see friends. A dance class, a regular date with a gym buddy, a midwinter party, a weekly or monthly dinner date, or tickets to concerts or plays, will all help you combat cabin fever.
3. Find enjoyable quiet activities. We are actually supposed to be more contemplative, creative, and inner-focused at this time of year, so make the most of it. Often in the summer we’re too busy or restless to devote ourselves to meditation, knitting, reading books, journaling, cooking, or art, all of which can be deeply satisfying activities for those lower-energy days.
4. Reach out for support. If you’re feeling low, it can be hard to find the energy to let others know and to ask for help. Whether it’s low-level winter blues or full-on debilitating depression, you deserve support. Let your family and friends know if you’re struggling. And be open to finding professional help as well. Therapy, support groups, bodywork, and Chinese medicine can all relieve depression and help you manage difficult times.


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