Winter in Chicago – A Natural Period of Turning Inward
Written by Sue Cook, MS, MSW, L.Ac., LSW
Winter here in Chicago can be a real test for your spirit. Once Daylight Saving starts, the sun goes down at 4:30 in the afternoon. The Farmers’ Almanac predicted an “icy, flaky” winter in the months ahead with colder than average temperatures and at least the average amount of snowfall- 36 inches, but they said there could be blizzards or another polar vortex. Nooooooooooooooooooooo!
For many of us, the loss of the light and warmth during the fall and winter months feels a lot like being buried alive- there’s a palpable weight to the evening darkness that makes leaving the house feel unbelievably difficult.
The winter holidays are approaching along with the family pressures and stress, disordered eating/body image struggles*, and loneliness that often accompany them. Many people also have trauma anniversaries around the holidays. Not to mention that as the year reaches its close, there can be tremendous pressure to set New Year’s Resolutions to lose weight*, exercise more, change our diets*, find a romantic partner, get organized, and other high expectations. No wonder so many of us develop “winter blues!”
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, somewhere between 5-20% of people living in the US will experience some degree of winter depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Between 10-20% of people who are managing major depression may experience a worsening of symptoms during the winter months as well. These numbers don’t include people with other conditions such as PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, or chronic pain**, which can all become harder to manage during the winter months.
So what can we do to make winter more tolerable? We can start by reframing the season as a natural period of turning inward. Just as trees shed their leaves and pull their sap into their cores, building their root systems stronger, so can we also focus on conserving our resources and strengthening our support systems. An easy method we can build positive emotions and resiliency is a simple writing exercise called “What Went Well (and Why),” also referred to as “Three Good Things.” This Positive Psychology activity asks us to review our day each evening and identify three things that went well, no matter how small, and why. This might be something like, “I woke up on time and treated myself to a shot of espresso at my favorite coffee shop because I wanted to start my day off with self-kindness,” or, “I got to leave work early because I got ahead on my work load yesterday,” or even, “I was feeling lonely and I asked my friend if they wanted to FaceTime and that really cheered me up.” You also can do this exercise out loud over the dinner table with your housemates or family or via text message or phone call with a loved one. Even though it seems simple, the research suggests that cultivating this optimism practice is associated with lasting benefits such as increased feelings of happiness for up to six months!
Another easy hack for feelings of low energy and difficulty concentrating is to get a therapeutic lamp that mimics daylight. The NY Times has a list of recommendations here. I keep mine parked by my computer and run it in the morning to wake up and in the evening when the sun goes down and I start to get sleepy. If you’re really struggling with feelings of low energy, please go visit your doctor and get your vitamin D and thyroid levels tested- low levels of both of these can really make the winter months harder. Our Medical Director, Dr. Luke Swift, has been trained in the use of natural hormones to help boost and regulate mood, so don’t hesitate to reach out for a consultation.
And then there’s the Garfield Park Conservatory, one of Chicago’s hidden gems. Not only is the gorgeous space a cozy 75 degrees inside the desert and jungle rooms, filled with bright flowers, fresh air, and soothing water features, it’s also pay-what-you-can! But if you’re struggling to leave the house, why not take yourself on a virtual tour of the Singapore Botanic Gardens? Treat yourself to a little taste of summer, even in the heart of winter! Chicago also has a number of great winter activities, from ice skating at Maggie Daley Park to a competitive karaoke league. Our city’s many amazing museums are cozy safe havens of intellectual and emotional enrichment during the winter months.
So, yes, winter is cold, and dark, and goes on a little too long. But if we practice self-kindness and give ourselves permission to rest and rebuild, we will survive it with patience and grace.
*If you’re struggling with body image or disordered eating, please check out MBC’s Holiday Support Group!
** MBC has a new massage therapist, so if you’re managing chronic pain, let us help you feel better with trauma-informed bodywork!
Written by Mind Body Co-op Psychotherapist & Acupuncturist, Sue Cook, MS, MSW, L.Ac., LSW. Sue has a Master’s degree in Traditional East Asian Medicine from Pacific College of Health and Science and a Master’s in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago. They have been in practice as an acupuncturist for the last eight years and recently became a licensed social worker. Their approach as a therapist has been heavily influenced by their work in Traditional East Asian Medicine and they offer client-centered compassion-based therapy that incorporates methods such as CBT, Solution Focused Brief Therapy, and narrative therapy.
Mind Body Co-op is Chicago’s only space for individuals to discover, explore, and heal what is occurring internally at the cognitive, emotional, and physical levels. This unique, holistic approach to treatment and wellness is born out of the belief that examining the cognitive, emotional, and physical pieces and how they intersect helps lead to uncovering your full potential by providing thoughtful, collaborative, and complete integrative mental health care. We offer a variety of clinical services, including individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, psychological/neuropsychological assessments, medication management, CPT (comprehensive transitional program), somatic mindfulness, somatic groups, DBT, adventure therapy, therapeutic yoga, and more. We provide culturally competent services in English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Russian & Arabic.