My Winter Blues
Every year in the fall, starting around my birthday in late September, I can feel a switch in my mood. The weight I carry and the pace in which I live my life start to become heavier and heavier as the winter draws near. I am often regarded for my energy and stamina because I have a true passion for life that often seeps through my pores. But every year around the same time, the passion becomes a burden I carry rather than the fuel that charges my battery. I call it my winter blues!
I become depleted and at times I suffer from debilitating anxiety. The impact is so noticeable that I have learned the patterns. I can feel it coming and know exactly what is happening as my mood changes. As predictable as this has become over the years, it feels like I am powerless to not fall victim to it. Despite every effort and awareness, my many tricks for prevention seem to fail me this time of year and as the winter draws nearer, I spiral deeper into myself and my anxiousness. Usually by December I am nearly locked inside my home. I dread holidays or events with lots of people. This includes the once beloved big family gatherings of my large extended family.
This particular year, I began to have panic attacks in late October before going on work trips where I knew I would spend days in meeting rooms with people. This was inexplicable to me because I had traveled all year long without incident. While I feel I have grown calmer, more self-aware and more centered in my life generally, my winter blues seems to worsen and become longer. As I write this in late February, I am keenly aware that in previous years I was feeling better by January, after resting and having time at home in December. This year is different.
It is hard to imagine that a person who can get on any stage, even if the audience has 5,000 people in it, could live with crippling anxiety that can be sparked by spending the day in a room with 10 of my colleagues. But that's the thing about life, so much of it is unbelievable. It is hard for me to reconcile that I can be authentically myself, loving every moment on a stage or at the executive table whilst dreading a simple interaction like a flight attendant asking me what I want to drink. The thought of not having headphones on an airplane makes me cringe this time of year.
I am grateful to understand this seasonal trend with my mental health. That being said, hyper awareness does not equal relief. Strategies like meditation, prayer and journaling certainly get me through the days. A few years ago, I would experience many mornings where I could not get out of bed from the debilitating exhaustion. Now, the call of a workout with my husband or favorite yoga instructor before work can usually win the fight against my desire to just sleep it off. Some days, even the mood boosting effects of a good sweat cannot help me overcome the weight of the winter blues. It's as if my mind changes with the weather. Even in a place like Colorado where winter weather is mild, and seasons aren't really seasons, my mental wellness experiences its own very distinct seasons. And the difference is real.
In the spring, just like the flowers, my energy and stamina return with a rush. In the summer, my mental resilience and stability becomes as long as the day. In realizing the patterns of my mental health and how it can flux dramatically in the winter, I also discovered I am one of three million Americans experiencing this. Up to 26% of Americans report winter depression or mild cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) each year. What strikes me is that these are the people that seek help. How many of us are out here who haven't reported or even discovered this condition? For so many of us, walking around feeling like you have lost your mind for four months a year can be such a shame.
I often spend January or February repairing at least one relationship in my life that was impacted by my withdrawal, anxiety or irritability. This year is the first time that in October I decided to share with friends that I could feel my winter blues coming on and I shared that I get depressed and anxious "this time of year". It was also the first year I shared with my mom why I struggle with some of our holiday activities and how they can drive a deep anxiousness in me that I am likely fighting for the entire day. Admittedly, for years, I would experience a big blow up with one or more of my family members right before Thanksgiving.
Looking back, I wish I had known the pattern and the cause, so I could express my anxiety in better ways. Sharing with my mom changed everything. She was able to separate herself from my withdrawal and understand it was not a rejection of her. We were able to arrange a shorter, big group holiday dinner on Christmas Eve and decided to spend time on Christmas Day with just my parents and my little family, which brought me absolute joy all day. I love my family and I realized that for so many years I was carrying the pressure of my winter blues and that in not sharing, I was hurting them during the time of year that was supposed to be about connection. And so, I challenged myself to share this with all of you too.
I want to break its hold on me a little at a time and while I still feel shame and frustration for not being able to prevent this or fight through it, I need to remind myself of what I would say to anyone else. It's not your fault. You are not crazy. Life is a hell of a ride even on the best days, and our bodies and minds are the vehicle we take this ride in. Be gentle with yourself, ask for what you need, see a doctor if you are feeling the need for intervention, and be ok with sleeping when you need to sleep. Let go of guilt as best you can, and I will try to do the same.
Until spring, cheers to surviving your winter blues!