Connecting with Your Inner Winter to Grow Your Best 2022

*Article written for the Estes Park Trail Gazette: https://www.eptrail.com/2022/02/01/live-well-estes-2022/

On December 21st, we celebrated the first day of winter with the Winter Solstice.  Unlike the Fall Equinox, where we shed our layers and leave old parts of us behind as we step into the darkness, winter is about the rebirth of the sun, or our inner light.  Yes, it’s still ghastly dark for long periods each day and we often feel lost, like we’re aimlessly wandering around in a dark forest at night without a headlamp or compass, but slowly, minute by minute, the light is growing. Even before the promise of sunrise, if we can find our North Star, we have a flame to guide us.

We’ll get to the light, we always do. For now I’ll ask for patience as we accept the invitation of winter and immerse ourselves in the dark.

Did you ever wonder what would happen if we all just skipped winter?  Well sure, we could all just go migrate to Florida for a few months. (The beach does sound nice right about now, doesn’t it?) Still, even Florida experiences darker days. The weather changes, as do the plants and habits of the wildlife.  In Estes Park, we’re blessed to experience the full depth of winter.  The harsh winds, cold nights, and bare trees.  To the naked eye, not much is happening outside in the plant world.  Everything looks dead.  Yet healing is happening in this restful state, deep at the roots, under the soft blanket of snow provided by Mother Nature. Sadly, I actually don’t have to tell any Estes Park resident what happens when winter is skipped or only partially experienced.  We’ve already seen the fires burn through.  We need winter, just as spring needs winter, and all the other seasons.

Honoring and giving ourselves the space for our own Inner Winter is equally important.  It includes several components, with rest, space for deep thinking and creativity more obvious pieces. In therapy, this is the time to do the underground work, the trauma work and the shadow work, when we start working at the root of deep wounds and begin the healing process. I won’t lie here either, this process can feel scary.  It’s courageous work.  What is important to remember is that we are never alone. Just as spring needs winter and each season needs the others, we all need each other too.  Asking for help from friends, family, or a psychotherapist, is not only okay, it’s part of the healing process.  Again, remember that healing deep wounds often happens slowly, much of it under the surface, wrapped under a blanket, and invisible to the naked eye. 

In short, we’re shining a light to the dark corners of ourselves and our lives so they too can become part of the light. Shadow work, in short, is about acknowledging and accepting the parts of us that have been rejected or deemed unacceptable in the past. Truly, those are important parts of us. I’ll give you a few examples.  I’ve met a lot of people who grew up in homes where it was not okay to express emotions. They were sent to their rooms when they were angry, or told to “stop crying” (or worse, to “toughen up”) when tears escaped their eyes.  The issue is that we are all emotional beings, some of  us even more tuned in to emotions than others.  Often, when we are taught our emotions are not okay, we lose a part of ourselves.  The only choice we have is to shut them down, go numb, or become depressed.  Another common example is when I see adults who, as kids, weren’t allowed to reveal the masculine or feminine parts of themselves in order to fit societal standards.  While I am thinking about the LGBTQ+ community, I’m really talking about all of us.  We all have masculine and feminine parts to us, regardless of our gender identity.  A few issues that I see when these parts of us are rejected include toxic masculinity and eating disorders, as well as anxiety and depression.  The only way to heal is to acknowledge these shadow parts and accept them as essential to our beings.  

And finally, the light.  The rebirth of our own inner suns, slowly rising in us a little more each day.

What is the light? I hate to box it by defining it, but I would give it a few names: hope, love, meaning, purpose.  Paradoxically, the more willingly we step into the darkness, the brighter our lights shine, even sparking the lights of others. This winter, we can utilize the light by setting an intention. What do we want to explore during winter? What changes/growth might we want to start preparing for in the spring? In less metaphorical terms, intentions are about how we want to feel and who we want to be in the world (which I would argue is already our true, authentic selves).  If you get stuck there, examine your values and narrow them down to about five or so.  Values are at the core of who we are as humans and help us make choices to keep us on our path.  With values in our pocket, intentions as our map, and our personal North Stars to guide the way, I think we all might just be okay in whatever adventures 2022 brings.
May your light, and the light of others, guide you through the dark. Know that the light is always there, even if you can’t see it at the moment.

Running Towards Adventure

He asked, “Do you want to run away with me?”

I said, “No.”

I have no need to escape.
I’ve faced my demons
and made friends.
I’ve walked directly into my darkness,
run into the moonless nights.
And found the sunrise.
I’ve dived into my past, spent time with the ghosts,
came back on with love
I’ve cried a million tears,
only to unearth a treasure of joy.

My shadows walk with me,
spirits of the Underworld,
right besides my angles,
loved ones passed.

So no, I can’t run away.
But I will run with you.
Along shores.
Up mountains.
Through forests.
Over hills.
Even on city streets.
Whatever calls to us,
asking to be explored.

The darkness, I know,
it will come again.
We can face it together.
Carrying our own light.

I asked, “Will you run towards this wild adventure with me?”

(And that’s how I ended up with Pacer! lol)

Illumination

Why is the darkness so enticing? Like the slow curl of an index finger, calling us in. Temporarily, the darkness offers us respite. A cocoon of security. The illusion is of its permanence, but truth in its ease. Perpetual safety that is not living, but a type of death.

It’s trick? Making us deny the wisdom of light. Light takes energy. It is energy. It gives energy. We are all sunshines and solar panels (or plant 🌱). Light has no limits beyond what the mind perceives. The light calls us to grow. It asks us to shine.

Photo cred: Derek Brooks Photography

Imagination

And what you don’t understand is…

I only believe you’re real when you’re sitting next to me.
When you’re not here, I feel certain my brain made you up.
So even when,
You send me texts of security,
a voice inside me is screaming,
“Don’t be foolish, this is all just make-believe.”

The Betrayal

I thought of you.
I didn’t forget.
Every moment I wished you were there.
I swear I did.

I know I only shed a few tears.
Last year I cried and cried.
But it doesn’t mean I missed you any less.

I cherish the moments someone says
“I can just hear Amanda now…”

I still wear my fun socks.
Listen to your CDs on the drive home.
Wrap myself in your sweaters.
Wait for a sign you’re near.

I know you understand.
My sadness couldn’t overflow forever,
Even if every year without you still feels unfair.

I’ll keep your candle,
Deep within my heart,
Burning.
Until I see you again.

Merry Christmas T.

Pockets of Pain & Hope

I believe that there are some of us who walk this earth who carry just a little more pain with is than others. It’s like coins buried deep down in the pocket of your jeans that are destined to stay there for eternity. That’s the depth of our sadness, the coins a small, constant reminder of the pain, hate, and cruelty in the world. Its not necessarily a burden we carry, just a few coins of sadness that we’ll always carry with us in this life.

That doesn’t mean we are pessimists. For in the other pocket we always carry a few nickels of hope. While we know we can’t change the world or take away the pain, the hope activates us to at least make it a little better. In the darkness, we still find the courage to shine our lights.

As a spiritual being in human form, I can’t yet always prevent my light from growing dim, or keep out that voice of despair saying “this is too much pain”.

But then I’m reminded I’m not alone. Pacer sticks her snout under my arm and gives me her wide smile. I think of my family and friends. 

You are the ones who give me the light to keep going and share it with the world. It’s all of you I am most grateful for in 2021.

Connecting with Winter to Support Your Emotional Well-Being. (My post from @WanderlustCounseling)


I think a lot of people get Winter Solstice (which we celebrated on Dec. 21st) confused with Fall Equinox.  


Winter is actually about the re-birth of the light, the re-birth of the sun.  Fall is about the coming darkness, as we shed layers and leave old pieces of us behind, and enter into the unknown.  It’s really that period right before winter that is the darkest.  It’s not uncommon for people to feel lost.  I call winter the “Wanderlust 1” phase, while summer is “Wanderlust 2″…a time when we are fully ourselves, full of energy, and dancing in our brightness.  In winter, the work is deeper.  And even if we’re still wandering in darkness, if we can grasp onto the light, slowly getting brighter each day (even when we can’t see it behind the clouds), we have a North Star to guide us out of the night.  
What is the light?  That sun rising within us?  


I would give it a few names…hope, love, meaning/purpose.  But how I think we can utilize the light is by setting an intention.  What do we want to explore during winter?  What changes/growth might we want to start preparing for in the spring?  


In therapy, this is the time to do the deep work.  The trauma work, the shadow work*, when we start working at the root of deep wounds and begin the healing process.  Let’s learn from the trees here too…when a tree is sick, other trees send over nutrients to help it heal (actually, there are plants, fungi, and mycelia involved too).  In short, asking for help is not only okay, it’s often part of the healing process.  Also remember that healing deep wounds often happens slowly, much of it under the surface, covered by a blanket of snow, and invisible to the naked eye.  


*Shadow work, in short, is about bringing into light the parts of us that have been rejected or deemed unacceptable in the past.  Truly, those are important parts of us.  


May your light, and the light of others, guide you through the dark.  Know that the light is always there, even if you can’t see it at the moment.  

Surrender

A poem within a word.
Carrying joy and sadness.
Hope and defeat.

Surrender.
The word itself flows like a stream.
Sometimes trickling.
Sometimes falling.
Always reflecting a glimmer of light.

I won’t let you go
Unless you ask.
Then I’ll send you off
With a wish, a tear, and love.

But if you choose to stay
We’ll jump in together.
Hand in hand.
I promise it will be a splash.
Following the current.
Riding the waves.
Catching the sparkles.
Surrendering to each other.
So free.
You and me.

Poems

Stars & Roots 

Sometimes I feel young, fresh from the ground. 

Other times I feel old as a star.

Not tired and waning.

Wise and vibrant. 

All that I’ve seen
Lies deep in my bones. 
Like roots of a redwood.
Underneath new skin, a fresh layer of bark. 

I am old and young.
Ancient and new.

Stardust at my core.

Moonlight

It hurt again
I didn’t know what to do
So I went the moon
To borrow some light
Until I can find my own
Once again 
I’ll find my way
Out of the dark.

Home

He said it felt like home.

I wanted to beg “take me back there.”

But my words got lost in the wind.

He would never be able to follow my trail of tears.

His path would never lead to my front door.

So instead I mailed my love

To a future that would never be mine.

(Still, I can’t let go of the glimmer of moonlight coming through the window)

How to Thrive Rather than Just Survive This Winter:  How to Keep Those Winter Blues at Bay

Did I catch you with my title?  Good.  Now that I’ve got you hooked, I’ll admit it’s a bit misleading.  That’s not to say I won’t give you some solid mental health tips, but we’re going to dive a bit deeper than that.

As a therapist, my job is not that of a fixer.  I’m a healer.  I don’t fix things that are broken; I help wounded people heal. Essentially, I use my curiosity to help my clients uncover what the root of their troubles are.   And we heal from the ground up.

With that being said, what I want to explore with you in this article is what is at the root of winter blues, or what some people call seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

Until recently, most people thought that SAD was related directly to the amount of light, or rather lack thereof, each day.  I’m sure anyone who’s moved to Estes Park from the midwest will tell you that they don’t miss the 3 straight months of grey skies and no sun.  While I don’t discount the influence of light and think a supplement of Vitamin D would be beneficial for most people, that wouldn’t explain why the people of Tromso, Norway, where inhabitants receive only 2-3 hours of indirect sunlight November through January, see little difference in their mental health in the winter.  Or why my own experience with SAD changed in my early twenties.  Or why some people in Estes Park have SAD, and others don’t.  To go one step deeper, I wonder if YOU have experienced SAD every year of your life, or only some years?  And finally, why did the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) decide to leave out SAD in their latest edition, and instead list it as a specifier (“with seasonal pattern”) to major depressive disorder?

Is it possible that in the winter something else changes besides how long the sun appears in the sky?

A quick side note on depression:  To date in my career as a therapist, I have never met anyone who is depressed for no reason.  There is ALWAYS a reason.

When I was an intern at Harmony Foundation, my supervisor theorized that SAD had to do more with lack of getting outside, rather than sunlight.  That seemed like a pretty valid theory.  Personally, I know that my own experience with SAD diminished when I started trail running outside in the winter rather than always being inside a gym (not to discredit the gym as research shows there are substantial mental health benefits to exercise).  Plus, have you ever met one of the skiers or snowboarders in town?  They are STOKED when the first big snowfall hits.  

One other theory that I’ve read in various sources is that our social habits tend to change in the winter.  Besides major holidays, people tend to gather less in the winter, and even that option wasn’t considered a possibility for many this past year.  In his book “Lost Connections” Johann Hari theorized that most cases of depression and anxiety are due to disconnection in relationships.  When I worked with people with alcohol addictions, I can’t recall any instance of a client saying they were an alcoholic and went to the bar everyday.  Maybe that’s where the drinking started, but it didn’t become a problem until they started drinking at home every night, alone.  

While I won’t claim here that I have THE answer to seasonal affective disorder or winter blues, I will say that lack of connection to Nature, to other people, and to ourselves might be at the root.  However, I do want to clarify that connection is different from being at work or in a store and saying “hi” to people.  Real connection means that when we are together, we have the space to truly be ourselves and allow for the others to truly be themselves as well.  We can speak freely about our emotions and thoughts.  It ensures empathy and an allowance for each person, animal, tree to be amazing just as they are.  We connect, meaningfully, at our cores.

Before I move into ways to stay mentally healthy, or even improve mental health this winter, I won’t pretend that in the COVID era, things are tougher.  Much tougher.  As I wrote in an article last year for the EP Trail Gazette, it’s okay to grieve, to just allow the tears.  Once we find that release, it creates space for other possibilities.  For instance, re-reading what connection is, you may already be able to come up with different, creative ways to gather and connect with others.  

Mental Health Tips for Winter (in the Covid Era)

Mindset: To Dread or To Find Opportunity this Winter?

One other thing I learned when reading about the people of Tromso, Norway, is that they use a mindset tip similar to what I use with the athletes I work with.  When a race, or winter, is on the horizon, do you view it as a threat or a challenge?  When we view things as a challenge, we also tend to see opportunities for play and for growth while a threat is scary and we either want to fight it, flee, or shut down (depression)…and good luck fighting snowflakes.  

List Out Things You Are Looking Forward To

Remember that big snow storm we had in March?  I deemed it “The Great Snuggle Weekend of 2021” and wrote a list of all the things I planned to do: play on my neighborhood hill, bake banana bread, read a book, and snuggle with my pup.  Even if you are more like me, a summer person, there’s so much to look forward to in winter, especially in Estes Park. I’ll list a few below in more detail, but for starters, I’m looking forward to hot drinks at my favorite coffee shops in town and being able to walk into a restaurant without an hour wait!

Getting outside

In the mental health world, recent years have seen a boom of research and articles on the effect of nature and mental health.  In short, nature has been shown to reduce stress, calm our buzzing brains, and boost mood, not unlike an antidepressant.  You don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to enjoy outdoor activities either.  In town, there are still plenty of opportunities to hike, but just a simple walk around your neighborhood or bird watching from your deck will have benefits. The key is to see the beauty that is around you. If you can hike, you can also probably snowshoe.  If you don’t want to invest in a pair, you can rent a pair for a whopping $5 at Estes Park Mountain Shop.  If that’s not your speed, Trout Haven and the YMCA offer ice skating. Then there’s my personal favorite: good ol’ sledding, great for kids of all ages! And that leads to my next tip…

Snuggling

Perhaps my favorite part of winter is that it offers  constant opportunities for warm drinks, either made at home or stopping at a coffee shop on the way home from an outing.  I’m already day dreaming of finding a cozy spot upstairs at Inkwell & Brew and gazing out their large windows. Then there’s getting to wear oversized sweaters to work and calling it “fashion”, wrapping myself under blankets (or my dog, who sometimes pretends she is a weighted blanket), and fuzzy socks.  Truly, all these things are a form of self-soothing. Still, if you have a partner, child, or fur-kid around, research suggests two is better than one.  When we cuddle with someone we care about, we release what are known as the “feel good hormones” (serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine). 

Connecting with Others

This, I believe, is the biggest one.  Save for last year, I considered winter to be my favorite time to be a local in Estes Park because I could truly get the sense of being part of a small, mountain community.  While nothing can fully replace in-person interactions or hugs, virtual interfaces did help many of us stay in touch with loved ones and I would heavily encourage anyone to use it who for various reasons can’t see loved ones in person.  On the red-nosed reindeer side, I think there’s more hope this year with more education on the virus and treatment. Regardless, we beautiful humans in town have adapted as best we could, and when I simply asked in a locals online forum what community gathering opportunities were available, I received much more feedback than I expected.  From trivia at Rock Cut Brewing to locals night at Chippers Lane and Dine Around Town in March, there was something for all ages and interests.  If necessary, I know we’ll adapt and change again.  The key is that we maintain and strengthen our ties to one another through whatever means necessary.  We thrive in community through compassion, cooperation, and connection. 

This article was originally published in Live Well, Estes Park Trail Gazette.

Your Apartment

I visited your place yesterday.

I knew you wouldn’t be home.

I didn’t go in.

Just visited the tree.

The one just outside your window,

where the squirrels and birds would play.

I thought maybe, maybe,

if I looked up,

I’d see your reflection looking out.

Down on me.

[I sense you more when I’m back here,

in the air coming off the lake.

I wonder if the cashiers at Target

notice your absence. ]

But you’re too far to touch.

Farther than just three stories up.

Only close enough to feel,

in the damp bark of the tree.