The Seasonal Self: Winter

As the days get shorter, the leaves fall from the trees and the first frost begins to appear on particularly crisp mornings, nature-wellbeing practitioner Claire de Boursac shares her thoughts on how to adjust your self-care routine for the colder, darker months.

Are you struggling to get out of your warm, cosy bed when your alarm goes off? Are you secretly a little relieved when a social engagement is cancelled, and you can spend the evening on your sofa with a book or a good film? Are you reaching for the comfort food in a way you weren’t a couple of months ago? Congratulations, you’re experiencing normal, natural and healthy responses to the change of season.

We evolved slowly to survive in our habitat, and for about 99% of human existence this was the natural world with its seasonal variations. It’s only very recently that we have found ways to have ample food, warmth and light throughout the year. The rate of technological advancement is radically faster than evolution though, so it’s not surprising that despite on-demand electricity and 24-hour supermarkets, we still feel the impact of the colder, darker months of the year. This is normal.

The challenge comes when we try to fight these natural impulses and distort ourselves to fit the demands of the constantly whirring machine of modern life. When society perpetuates a myth of consistency and the roles we inhabit require us to perform at the same rate throughout the year, we can feel like we are ‘getting it wrong’ or ‘failing’ when we feel less energetic and want to turn inwards during winter. I often witness this in the clients that I see in my therapy practice.

I’m a real advocate of seasonal self-care. It’s is a crucial part of wellbeing: it’s so important to know what we need and exactly how to get it. However, this changes throughout the year and I think it’s helpful to check in each season to see which parts of your self-care routine might need adjusting to serve you in the here and now. After all, self-care starts with self-awareness. We need to know what’s going on for us in order to know what we need, and although this is not always easy, I find that looking to nature can often provide a good hint. She’s an expert in seasonal adjustment!

When we look to nature, we can see winter as a time for simplifying, retreating and resting. I don’t know about you, but those three words are a tonic for me, and I feel a small internal sigh when I write them. As a nature-wellbeing practitioner I spend a lot of time outdoors; or more specifically, among the ancient trees of the enchanting Queen’s Wood in Highgate, north London, where I spend my Wednesdays observing the way the woodland ecosystem changes through the year. After a hive of activity in autumn as squirrels dart around stashing their acorns and the leaves dance in the air as they make their way to the earth, the wood becomes still. Not completely, as there is always something moving, but noticeably more still then other times of the year. Growth and productivity take energy and that is in shorter supply now.

Some creatures hibernate. The birds that are not adapted to the winter weather migrate. Even trees go into their own version of hibernation-dormancy, where growth and food production stops. The deciduous trees lose their leaves as they no longer serve the purpose of drawing in the sun’s energy and they require huge amounts of water to maintain – which also uses up energy stocks. To avoid freezing, trees draw their sap away from the thin, exposed branches and deeper into their core and the roots, where it is protected by the warm earth. We don’t judge nature for her adjustments, and I believe we should extend ourselves the same courtesy.

One of the biggest risks at this time of year is overdoing it and getting run down as we work our way through our to-do list without checking our fuel gauge. It always strikes me as a recipe for disaster, or at least a recipe for stress and sniffly colds, that at the very same point in the year where our biology is asking us to slow down, turn inwards and take it easy, our diaries start bulging with endless festive parties and our already long to-do lists get all sorts of special shopping added to them. I invite you to regularly ask yourself the following question: on a scale of one to ten, how much energy do I have today? Be honest. Then consider the energy value of your planned day – if it doesn’t add up, try to see if there is anything you can adjust. If not, perhaps consider when your next opportunity to catch up and replenish might be. Mark that in your diary, using a permanent pen, not a pencil. 

It might be helpful to ask yourself how you’d like to feel this winter and then explore what would support this. When you scan back over previous winters, perhaps even back to childhood, what are your favourite memories? Can you weave those in this season? If you remember the smell of peeling a clementine or the joy of cracking walnuts, then add those to your weekly shop. If you love ice skating in the fresh air, book a session now. I’ve found in recent years that the Scandinavian concept of Hygge has brought us permission and inspiration to respond a little deeper to our inner impulses and I for one have been delighted by the trend for more cosy fires and comfy blankets appearing in bars and pubs. Magazines and adverts with candlelight and people snuggling up with hot chocolate and a book invite us to surrender to them. Make time for the things you enjoy about the season; it’s relatively short and it won’t be long before these activities are no longer possible.

Our winter needs are highly individual, and I encourage you to take time to feel into what’s right for you. Here are some of my suggestions, in case any resonate:

  • Replace energetic activities with more restorative ones. It’s good to keep moving even if it’s just some gentle stretching or a brisk walk.  
  • Make sure you have a space in your home that is cosy and inviting where you enjoy snuggling up – perhaps with a view. Gift yourself some lovely candles. 
  • Crafting is deeply relaxing and nourishing. Perhaps make some presents – not only will the recipient get something thoughtful and lovely, but you’ll be gifting yourself some slow, creative time in the making of it. 
  • Don’t let the desire to stay home stop you from socialising.  Winter is a great time to make ‘phone dates’ with friends who live further afield or have commitments (children, travel etc) that mean it’s hard to meet up. 
  • Slow cooking. This time of year lends itself so well to slow roasting and stews – things that take time and fill the house with delicious smells. If you find you have less energy at the end of the day during winter, perhaps make a large batch of something on a Sunday so your weekday evenings can be gentler, but no less nutritionally nourishing.

While much of the above has focused on retreating in and staying cosy, it’s also good to get outside regularly.  Wrapping up warm and going for a walk not only immerses you into the season but the cold air can help clear the mind and boost energy levels. As I mentioned at before, nature shows us how to respond to winter, and so being outside and witnessing this may also help you to dive deeper into the themes of the season. For example, we typically associate watching the sunset with long, lazy summers but winter sunsets can be particularly stunning. If you can, take time to watch the changing colours. If you find the grey and the dark challenging, make the most of those crisp sunny days and get outside, especially in the middle of the day. 

Personally, I get pleasure from wearing my beautiful green coat (picked up for a steal at a Whitstable vintage fair) and brightly coloured accessories in the winter which bring colour and cheer into the greyest of days. I’m writing this on a particularly dull day and have just returned from a walk on Hampstead Heath where I chose to put my attention on all the shades of red that I could find. There were a surprising number of red berries, leaves, hats, keep cups and dog collars and I am sure I wouldn’t have noticed all this colour had I not walked with that intention. It was such a simple meditation which lifted my mood.

As you experiment with your winter self-care, if you do get some insight into what works best for you this season, why not get it in your diary already for this time next year? I tend to book a cosy Friday off from work in November, December, January and February (one of the pros of being self-employed) as I know resting up is the best way for me to stay well throughout the winter. Sometimes this involves a lot of reading in bed, sometimes pottering around the house or leisurely wrapping presents well ahead of the family get-together so that it’s an enjoyable experience. I pop these days in the diary a year in advance, because come summer I can easily forget how important it is.  

Getting to know our seasonal self and how to care for him or her is a deeply individual process. It’s one I find both enjoyable and rewarding and hope you will too.  

If you’d like to explore the current season, what it means for you and how to best care for yourself, Claire’s Seasonal Self: Winter workshop will be taking place on Wednesday January 22nd at the Wellbeing Cabin in Queen’s Wood, Highgate. Details here or contact Claire directly. 

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