by Lane Vail
For California acupuncturist Daniela Freda, counseling patients that grapple with low energy during winter is routine. “They’re often concerned something is wrong, since our society expects us to feel the same way year-round,” says Freda, who maintains a private practice in San Francisco. “But in fact,” she adds, “everything is right.”
According to a study published in Psychiatry Research, only 4 to 6 percent of Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), characterized by a predictable seasonal pattern of major depressive or bipolar disorder. For the vast majority of the population, a slight seasonal variance in mood and behavior is normal, confirms Kathryn Roecklein, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and prominent SAD researcher at Pennsylvania’s University of Pittsburg.
Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), like Freda, view decreased energy in nature’s wintertime as a reflection of the season’s energy. In this philosophy, rising (yang) and falling (yin) energies cycle as the seasons turn. Winter is governed by quiet, slow, introspective and creative yin energy. As winter yields to spring, the bright, fast, expansive and extroverted yang energy gains momentum to peak in summer.
“Nature expresses universal energies in a big way,” says research psychologist and mind-body medicine expert Joseph Cardillo, Ph.D., author of The Five Seasons. Who can ignore a blossoming spring or an abundant autumn? “Those same energetic cycles,” says Cardillo, “are mirrored in the microcosmic human body and human experience.”
Although the December 21 winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, temperatures in most of the U.S. continue to fall through February. Cardillo advises embracing winter’s chill because it diverts our attention from daily activities so that we pause to consider what’s important. “The effect is similar to splashing cold water on our face,” he remarks.
As the cold draws animals into hibernation and plants into dormancy, it also beckons us to enjoy extra sleep, notes Freda, as we follow the sun’s path: Earlier to bed; later to rise. She encourages her clients to incorporate restorative activities into daily routines. “Intentionally set aside time to connect with the breath and quiet the mind,” she counsels. Try gentle yoga or t’ai chi, listen to relaxing music, curl up with a cozy book or take nature walks, flush with fresh sensory experiences.
Cardillo explains that slowing down naturally creates space for the contemplative and creative qualities of yin energy to rise. Meditating, visualizing and journaling promote access to one’s inner wisdom. “Winter is a perfect time to examine the myriad ideas you’ve dreamt up and assemble them into a new you,” says Cardillo. “Now you are prepared to use the robust energy of spring to scatter those ideas abroad.”
Reflect on Water
In TCM, the element of water, symbolizing focus and purity, is closely associated with winter. Highly adaptable, water can be solid, liquid or formless vapor; it can flow over, under, around or through obstacles with ease; and it can be still and contained. Contemplating the power of water in any of its forms can help synchronize one’s consciousness with the season’s gifts.
“When your mind is unstuck and flowing like water, your dreams start becoming real to you, simply because you’re in the flow, the present moment,” observes Cardillo, who also authored Be Like Water. He suggests looking to water for guidance in creating solutions, sharpening focus or moving effortlessly on to the next step.
Freda points out that within the strong yin energy of winter, “There are yang moments, celebratory moments, to keep us going.” An imbalance can occur when the slowness of winter is completely counteracted by too much high-energy socializing, working or rushing through the day. “An excess of yang during the winter,” counsels Freda, “rather than a glimpse of it, can deplete us,” contributing to stress, fatigue and depression.
Conversely, for those with an already predominantly yin personality (quiet, introverted, low energy) that overindulge in the yin energy of winter, an attempt at restoration and quietude can lead to lethargy and isolation. “I see this clinically,” says Freda. “Instead of embracing a little extra rest and relaxation, some people become exhausted and lose their motivation altogether. They become stuck in the yin.”
Cardillo recommends that such individuals engage in mood-brightening outdoor activities to help restore balance. Roecklein agrees, noting that SAD sufferers undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy (which emphasizes positive thinking and beneficial behaviors) likewise are encouraged to participate in physical and social activities that bring joy and meaning.
Lane Vail is a freelance writer in South Carolina. Connect at WriterLane.com.