To be honest, I’ve had difficulty writing this week.
It’s been one of those weeks where I feel worn thin. Everything feels harder, especially during this time of year. Both my physical and mental immune systems are more vulnerable.
I’ve noticed others feeling it too. It makes sense, at least where I’m at in the world—we haven’t seen sunshine for a while, it’s too cold to go outside unless you have to, and we’re all passing around colds. The joys of a Midwest winter.
As much as I write and think about mindfulness and self-care, both personally and as a therapist, I’m not great at it when a dark wave hits. For me, a dark wave includes a spike in anxiety and depression, often resulting in low energy, lack of motivation and a lot of self-doubt and criticism. During the past week, I kept thinking I wouldn’t write a post, but instead I want to share some thoughts I’ve had during this experience about what mindfulness and self-care means for me when I’m in a rough patch, and to emphasize that it’s okay if it looks different than when I’m feeling good:
1. Don’t add extra pressure.
Ironically, my first thought about being mindful during a week like this is to take some pressure off of the whole mindfulness and self-care idea. Both are so important, but when I’m constantly seeing messages about it and ways to do it, I find myself feeling guilt around it. I have actually had thoughts like “I should really be taking a relaxing bath instead of watching this TV show…”
Really? I’m now putting pressure on myself to relax better? When I’m having a hard week, a period of anxiety, depression, seasonal mood stuff, whatever, my self-care may look different than it does at other times. I’d rather practice being aware of what I’m feeling and what I need right now than trying to fit into a box of what I think self-care and mindfulness should look like. Sometimes this might mean a bath, yoga, tea, or journaling—but sometimes it means binge-watching my favorite TV show with a glass of wine after work. I’m practicing bringing awareness into what my body and mind are not only needing, but wanting (while not being destructive), rather than what I think my self-care should look like.
2. Acceptance and Self-Compassion.
When I start feeling anxiety or depression creeping up, I often have these kinds of thoughts:
“There’s no reason I should feel anxious or depressed. There’s nothing going on” (aka, me believing I have to justify feeling down).
“Okay fine, I’m feeling anxious or depressed. I have to know why now” (I can accept this but only with a good reason, and there’s an underlying belief that it’s probably my fault).
“I need to solve this as soon as possible” (putting pressure on myself around self-care instead of practicing it in a balanced way).
Looking at the parentheses after each of these thoughts, I realize they only serve to make me feel inadequate in the face of my feelings. Instead of giving myself a break, it’s tempting to double down on the pressure. It’s interesting that I don’t do this with physical ailments. For example, the week before last, I had a cold. Each day that week, I gave myself rest and lifted some pressure, telling myself I needed it to heal and feel better. Why don’t I do the same for my mental health?
Instead of feeling inadequate and putting pressure on myself to feel better as soon as possible, I’m practicing acceptance and self-compassion. For me, this looks like replacing the above thoughts with these:
“I’m feeling rough this week. I’m feeling more anxious and depressed than usual” (it’s simply a statement, no judgement necessary).
“I’m going to be gentle on myself through this time. I need it to heal and feel better” (lifting pressure, rather than adding it).
“This will pass, it always does” (I can care for myself without putting a timeline on my suffering).
3. Keeping to my routine as much as possible.
Outside of what my self-care may look like during this time, I find it helps to keep to other aspects of my routine as much as possible. This doesn’t need to be perfect (remember: no extra pressure), but I find that sticking to a routine to keep some very basic needs going through a time like this is vital. When I say basic, I mean as basic as drinking a good amount of water, going to bed and getting up at consistent times to get much needed sleep, eating meals that nourish me physically and taking my vitamins. I personally do a short yoga practice in the mornings (sometimes it’s just 10 minutes), but you can replace that with any physical activity at any point in the day, if yoga isn’t your thing (or if mornings aren’t…).
A part of me wants to roll my eyes as I hear myself saying “Drink enough water and get adequate sleep!” when talking about anxiety and depression, but when I’m feeling rough, my motivation around these habits drops off. If I’m dehydrated, exhausted and not eating well, my anxiety and depression are going to get worse. As I ride out a dark wave, however long it may last, I can continue the routines that I know are good for me when I’m feeling better.
These are some ideas this week that have helped me through this winter slump. They may be helpful to you—but everyone is different with different needs! I’d love to hear what helps you stay aware and how you take care of yourself during a dark wave.
Hanging in there until spring,
Like this post? Find similar content here: Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder