If you live in the Northern hemisphere, its that time of year for the big energy slump.My family are really struggling with the winter season this year and I’ve closely observed the symptom in myself and in (to be honest) our whole culture for years now. Its like we become extremely off-kilter with our own bio-rhythms as we reach this end point of the year, growing ever more intense from November onwards and I’m hearing the same old song I used to sing myself – “I can’t cope, I wake up tired, I feel overwhelmed, like I’m walking through treacle”. Why do we feel so lousy; what is so unnatural to us that we can’t cope with the way nature is geared; in fact, is it nature or is it rally us that’s off-kilter?
“Back in the day” we would have knuckled down to the inevitability of the winter season and, not unlike most other mammals, worked with it instead of pushing against the tide. With our harvested food tightly packed in storage ready for the solid cold slog of January to March, we’d have laced our mead with mistletoe (nature’s birth control – why do you think we made a habit of “kissing” under the mistletoe; but not to be tried at home as it can be toxic) and then guzzled and slept – in both senses – our way through it all. We’d have pulled those covers over our heads and dozed our dopey way to the solstice, falling into our sacks after the midafternoon sunsets and bowing to the natural rhythms that drew us, deep and down into the earth; until the big cause for celebration, the winter solstice, marked the return of lighter days and we could start to look forward to a little more activity (but even then, we had a couple of hard-cold months ahead of us). The key to this is that we didn’t try to force anything that was unnatural to the seasons or the functioning of our own bodies.
The industrial revolution has a lot to answer for and we’ve been in “over-ride” mode ever since. The deeply conditioned impulse to fight against the natural urge to hibernate has become our new survival mode…since we have to in order to hold down a steady job and keep the wolf from the door. Is it any wonder some of us feel as shell-shocked as if we have been woken up the night to deal with a marauder on our porch when we are forced to keep doing a nine-to-five over winter? We prise ourselves awake and into a state of high adrenalin against the very deepest impulses of our biology; which, being unceremoniously shaken awake from its natural urges, tips us into flight-or-fight mode, which is how many people live out their days at this time of the year. It makes for irritable office politics, fear-driven reactions, road-rage and the spreading of endless viruses; not to mention addictive habits (from drinking to shopping…) in a desperate attempt to cope with what feels un-copable. People go to their doctors describing these symptoms and its assumed to be depression and so another prescription gets written. Its a tough time of year for many people; but only because we stopped listening to our natural rhythms.
The more the urge to bow down to the dark tries to insist itself in our cells (as “sleep, I tell you, I need more sleep” our bodies say), the harder we push against it with brighter lights and ever more stimulants. We stuff ourselves with sugary foods and plug into our television sets and gizmos, we shop until we drop in brightly lit shopping malls all the weekend long then fall into the over stimulus of noisy eateries with base-beat music and wi-fi everywhere; our world never really goes to sleep if we live in a city. Like moths to a flame, we can’t seem to help ourselves beat-beat-beat against the very opposite to what our bodies mostly crave at this time of the year; which is to pull back and rejuvenate, to repair and recover. Like the natural daily cycle of awake hours and bedtime, our yearly cycle is the very same thing, only on a larger scale…yet we largely ignore it then wonder why we feel so dead-beat. Simple answer, we’re perpetually jet-lagged and can’t catch up with ourselves; all we ever do is plug the gap with more of what we don’t need.
My own wake-up journey (in the sense of becoming more conscious of what used to run unconsciously in me as habits and reactions, conditioned rhythms I had no real grasp of) has taken me ever closer to the natural cycles of seasons, moon and planetary alignment. Once upon a time, these aspects – quite literally – meant the world to us yet we were forcibly detached like a tiny infant from its mother in order to prime us for the mechanised viewpoint of life that was made synonymous with survival. In other words, we stopped living off – and in sync – with the land and we moved to the cities and towards commerce-driven ways of living in order to survive; yet the innate connection we once had with the planetary rhythm is still there, even though we try to sit on it. If we feel so misaligned at this wintry time of the year that we feel almost traumatized by it, there could be every possibility that at its root lies an original reaction to the axial tilt that must have thrown us right off kilter 11,500 years ago, when (according to some emerging science) seasons “got started” due to our planet being nudged off its original axis in alignment with the sun by a super-nova collision that resulted in a cataclysm. The funny thing is, we seem to be the ones that are mostly tilted off our axis these days since we are no longer synced with the seasons that we live in; in other words, we are the ones that are experiencing the misalignment, relative to what we used to know, and it feels like its own mini-cataclysm, year after year.
I see in my dog a parody of same comic behaviour that plays out in me and mine at this time of the year, which he also finds something of a struggle being a sun-worshipper of the nth degree. He sleeps a hung-over type of sleep most of the day, his nose pushed deep into the pile of blankets that he insists upon, then he gets up for his walk (the one lively time of his day) and, once the sun goes down, obsesses about food and snacks like his life depends on getting another treat out of the cupboard, before falling back into a deep slumber in his bed. I think one of the hardest parts of this run up to the winter solstice this year is that its the first time we have done it without alcohol, having given that up last December. Looking back, our winter evenings used to (so often) fall off their rails of “drinking only at the weekends” to where we were having what we termed a “thirsty Thursday”, “…Wednesday” or even (occasional) “…Monday” by the end of November. In fact the rules about alcohol consumption, about our hands dipping into the chocolates, about all these addictive things would disintegrate in proportion to how dark and cold the evenings were…and, even now, I have a craving for (OK, vegan, sugar-free) chocolate that almost makes me want to cry if there is non available. Yes, I find myself standing in my kitchen starting forlornly at a cupboard door looking exactly like my dog…
The problem with the learned habit of overstimulating ourselves to “keep going” is that it messes with our melatonin production, which relies on us keeping to that rhythm of “time to wind down now” as soon as it gets dark. Melatonin is profoundly affected by light-levels and is a major player in the crucial reboot and care of our cellular bodies when we are fast asleep. It also key to our immune system, even (studies now suggest) playing a major part in recovery from cancer. When we don’t do wind down after dark but insist on artificial lights and staring at flickering screens until we (eventually) go to bed seven or eight hours after sunset, the body can’t get melatonin production going for long enough in the time before bedtime, on its sluggish winter setting (since our biology is naturally meant to become slower, gentler with a long run up at things at this time of the year), to ensure that our sleep quality is the restorative kind that we need. We wake up in the morning feeling as exhausted as when we went to bed…and we are, since the body hasn’t managed to do all its repairs and system reboots by the time we open our eyes. Yes, we’ve probably spent most of the night “asleep”, even dreamt our way to oblivion but there’s a missing chemical link…like the team of cellular engineers who check all our switches and fuseboxes didn’t quite get to us on their call-out rounds (or the night before, the one before that). Those engineers are the melatonin that we call for as soon as we start to wind down our activity in the evening, turning off the stimulants and sitting in dark spaces, getting those early nights. In modern life, we ignore this requirement night after night until, a month after the clocks changed, we feel wrung-out exhausted, vaguely depressed, our “normal” stresses and strains have us feeling alarmed and overwhelmed and we just want to pull the duvet back over our head when the alarm goes off. A sense of profound panic or of free-falling in our inability to cope with our job, our finance, our LIFE can can come at us from nowhere and leave us in a downward spin.
So what do we do when we feel like this? We watch even more television, distract ourselves with our electric gizmos right up until bedtime, eat those sweets, guzzle that wine, shop till we drop, party all night long…and call it Christmas.
Interestingly enough, there’s a biological reason why we might have tended towards eating turkey at this time of the year and that’s because its about the best source there is of the amino acid l-tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin production (which goes array when our melatonin production gets messed with overnight). The very urge for tryptophan tells us this whole biological conveyor belt is under strain. That vaguely depressed feeling that sweeps us up over the “dark months” is a sure sign of serotonin deficiency and so reaching for a food that made us feel more relaxed, more surrendered yet better about the winter urge to pull back, without knowing why, would have been a well-timed impulse around the point in history that we started organising and industrialised ourselves to oblivion around the need to earn money, over-riding the natural urge to sleep through the winter. You could say, the mass-slaughter of turkeys was industrial man’s antidote to a depressed and sleepy workforce, providing one or two major holidays when we could eat and drink ourselves to oblivion whilst gaining the amino acid boost that might tip our balance for long enough to keep us working the rest of the winter season. Of course, I’m a vegetarian now so that’s no good to me but I have taken 5-HTP (a serotonin precursor) as a supplement, in the past, to help tip that balance over the winter months but I reached a point where I felt better about recalibrating my relationship with the seasons rather than seeking a magic pill.
This year, for the first time in many, I honestly don’t feel as tipped off kilter as I used to, though I still use 10,000 lux lighting around my house on the darker days. I try to make sure I get outside for an hour during the best-quality light of the day (preferably morning) and I chase the sunlight around from room to room. But mostly its a case of accepting what is and seeing the beauty of it, working with its rhythms, appreciating the opportunity to pull back and do some of the gentler stuff, knowing I can go full-throttle at it again in the new year. I don’t have to be anywhere first thing in the morning and can start the day on my yoga mat, though I’m generally “at my work” by 9 o’ clock like most people; but in a gentle way. The thing that makes the real difference is the fact I’ve created a largely stress- and pressure-free lifestyle; I don’t have too many hoops to jump through or clients (with deadlines) to keep happy and that’s where so many people find that they struggle at this time of year. The lack of give in schedules that require that they be as sparky and alert as they would be in the lighter, more energised months is just not a practical thing for most humans and yet we have just kept beating ourselves against this misalignment – like that moth repeatedly flapping its wings against the red-hot lightbulb – because that is the way our commercial culture is geared so we bow down to that as though its a concrete thing that is nonnegotiable. We have factored in virtually no room for seasonal let-up and I think it is something that will have to be redressed in the name of practicality (and people’s health) in the future or more and more people will take the conscious decision to move into different kinds of work that can adapt and be kept more flexible to what feels more natural to them – and to everyone.
We tend to think the “man and machine” partnership is this long-term permanent arrangement that can only continue down one particular track now; that we have all-but become an extension of the technology we have invented until the technology becomes our everything and us servants to it. My view – there will be a breakaway by those who don’t chose that and who gravitate towards the more natural rhythms that put them back on their own central axis so that they can feel more aligned with who they are. In the meantime, taking the conscious steps to achieve more relaxation in the evenings (without a flickering screen in front of our eyes or a hand reaching for those over-stimulating snacks) and to follow those natural rhythms as much as possible is a positive first step. There can be so much resistance around this to start with (“I’ve been at work all day…all I want to do now is boil my brain in front of the telly…”) but its so worth it for the difference it makes to how you feel and cope with life.
It’s alright to go to bed early (that needs to be said) and to doze on the sofa pretending to be reading a book. We have made these natural impulses so wrong or been terrified into thinking that they mean we are depressed or lazy; the body always has our best interests at heart and we should listen to it more. Even the occasional duvet day (as some companies are now factoring into their company benefits; see article below) is perfectly acceptable and should have none of the stigma attached to it that used to make it into such a cardinal sin. Everyone – and I mean everyone – should get out for that daily walk each day, even if its for half an hour in their lunch break, preferably in the lightest part of the day and make that a walk to a park, a graveyard even, somewhere that is natural, not around a shopping mall! I guess even the occasional drink to relax (if not for me) is acceptable since we used to do this in the old days; but that would have been home brewed mead, not a chemical cocktail and the problem with modern commercial drinks is that so many of them are packed with chemicals and stimulants and are super-powerful whereas what we drank from a tankard would have been of a very different ilk, more like a vaguely alcoholic bedtime tipple that we gave to our grannys and children. The better ones are chamomile tea or a cup of turmeric milk; consumed in a dimly lit room with no pretence that you’re “relaxing” in front of a movie (those electric screens mess with melatonin production even if you’re watching a video of goldfish in a bowl) but then we’ve become so afraid of doing nothing or just gently chatting to one another and these are very underrated pastimes ideally suited to this time of year. In fact, as I’m instigating in our household for the next month, try out a technology curfew for a couple of hours before bed and see how your sleep (and awake) patterns shift before the turn-point of the year; ready to adjust again as days start getting lighter. I know it makes a huge difference – I’ve done it before. Its seems so obvious to be adaptable to the seasons – but we just got off kilter and forgot to do this simplest of things for the longest time in our history; so perhaps its time for us to remember.
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