If you are like me, December can be overwhelming…. As we approach the Winter Solstice, the gift of sunlight is hard to come by, causing light deprivation, circadian disturbances, and shifts in melatonin regulation. The subsequent effects on mood, behavior and health can be difficult to deal with, especially since the reins of life’s expectations don’t loosen to accommodate these seasonal shifts. Instead, the holidays bring their own unique stresses and can add to a sense of depletion and anxiety.
In my case, it’s the same each year. The effects of light deprivation sneak up on me, much in the way that seasonal allergies seem to. I start feeling sluggish and apathetic. My eyes take on a dull ache and my skin and hair feel like straw. My sleep is less rejuvenating and I feel starved for more of it. When the morning alarm rings, it takes me by surprise like a nighttime intruder on my dreams, rather than the harbinger of a new day. I crave food that can be defined as ‘sticking to the ribs’–starches, sweets and carbohydrates. I move about my day in an uncomfortable fog, as if I’ve shifted into a Winter torpor.
Obviously, the effects of these shifts in our circadian rhythms can have major implications for our functioning. The term SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, has been specified by the American Psychiatric Association as a recurrent major depressive disorder. There are many treatments for SAD, from lightbox therapy and negative air ionization to antidepressants and vitamin D supplements–all of which can be valuable.
However, what I think is critically missing from the conversation surrounding this ‘condition’, is that it is actually quite a balancing force, allowing the external energies of Spring and Summer to gently ebb into the reflective and restorative influence of Fall and Winter. In this way, we are connected intimately to all of the other living beings around us. Those of us who don’t choose to migrate by feather, fin, foot, engine or airplane to lands of longer days, are given to the same process of slowing down. Amphibians bury themselves in the cold muddy bottoms of ponds and slow their metabolic rates to a crawl. Bears, rodents and small mammals snuggle into burrows, caves, hollowed logs, warrens, dams and tunnels and hibernate. Deciduous trees shed their leaves, stop photosynthesizing and go dormant. Perennials pulse energy and nutrients through their roots. Plants and animals are allowed the most logical and reasonable response to the shifting in seasons–rest.
As for we humans, it is essential that we allow some self-care rituals to usher in the shorter days and colder weather to avoid feeling at odds with our environment. SAD is, at least in part, a result of the cultural expectation that our patterns should remain the same, despite the changes in our environment. Our culture is not set up to keep us thriving through these transitions. Our work and school days remain the same. Our financial pressures only increase with the need to heat our homes and accommodate holiday spending. We are accustomed to eating the same varieties of foods in these lean times as we do in the vegetative abundance of summer. We can feel isolated and alone as the roads become icy, and the weather less appealing.
However, we can take a cue from some other Northern cultures that have adjusted for the dark days surrounding the Solstice. Scandinavian countries, specifically Denmark and Norway, have adopted the concept of ‘Hygge”. This is a term that signifies a physical and psychological state of coziness, safety, togetherness and well-being. Hygge is a state of being that does not try to defy the influence of these circadian changes, but rather embodies them in a celebration of reflection, unity and restoration. There is much evidence that this concept is good medicine. Despite sometimes as much as 17 hours of daily darkness, the Danes are one of the happiest people on the planet.
And while it is unrealistic for most of us to shirk the responsibilities of modern life, we can adopt some of the principal tenets of Hygge into our daily routines. Below is a simple, attainable list of small changes that can have mighty effects on our mental, physical and spiritual health as we enter these Winter months.
- Declutter. Physical clutter leads to mental congestion and makes it harder to relax. Make your home a sanctuary by creating tidy and clear spaces. Focus instead on coziness–soft blankets, warm socks, and plush textures work wonders.
- Create a glow. The warm, flickering light of wood stoves, candles and soft lighting give a softness and security that incandescent lighting can’t match.
- Exercise first thing in the morning, outside in the natural light. This helps in multiple ways–it keeps circadian rhythms fixed and maintains a strong sleep drive at the end of the day. And, exposure to natural morning light can stave off grogginess for the rest of the day as it signals the body to cut down melatonin release and increase serotonin levels.
- Maintain a consistent sleep and waking cycle.Going to bed and waking up at the same times each day can work wonders on keeping our circadian rhythms aligned.
- Put away the back-lit gadgets at least 1 hour before bed and enjoy the natural warm light of a fire or candlelight instead. The blue spectrum light given off by electronics confuses the brains rhythm’s and inhibits the hormonal release needed for good sleep.
- Be together. Hygge is created through togetherness. Allow the holidays to be a chance to come together and help each other, rather than a cue to buy presents. Give the gift of your time and be present, and ask that others give the same. Physical objects cannot create happiness the way that feeling secure, unstressed and valued can. Together, we can support each other and create an unparalleled expression of light in the darkness: the feeling of being loved.
I hope you all have a happy Solstice, and a cozy start to your Winter! For more information about Hygge, check out Meik Wiking’s book, The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well.
Herbal Truffle Recipe
These truffles make beautiful and healthful gifts for the holidays. They are a great way to give your loved ones the benefits of herbs as they enjoy the luxurious treat of homemade truffles. Enjoy!
¼ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup maca powder
¼ cup turmeric powder
2 tablespoons damiana powder
1 tablespoon ginger powder
1 tablespoon rosemary powder
1 tablespoon cardamom powder
½ tablespoon black pepper finely ground
3/4 cup tahini or almond butter
1/2 cup raw honey or maple syrup
1 tablespoon coconut shreds or black sesame seeds to roll balls in
- Mix the nut butter and sweetener together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the powdered herbs.
- By hand or with an electric mixer, slowly add powdered herbs to the nut butter mixture.
- Form mixture into 1-inch balls and then roll in coconut shreds or sesame seeds.
- Store in airtight container in the refrigerator—refrigeration will give the truffles a firmer texture.
- Enjoy 1-3 truffles per day.