Hello again. Laurie Belanger LCSWR here with more words on a page that hope to be useful and possibly even entertaining. That might seem odd at first thought; a trauma therapist hopes to make us laugh? YES, at least some of the time! Some of the funniest people I have ever met are trauma therapists. And trauma survivors are not always sporting visible pain and low moods, despite their challenging histories. Laughter can be healing, and if not the answer to emotional drowning….sometimes the temporary water wings of respite. So welcome, all those out there searching for a giggle when so much of the world and experience can be decidedly not funny.
Winter is an especially hard time in the world of mental health, for both the clients and for providers too. I live and practice in Western New York, not far from the famously snowy city of Buffalo. Winters here can be very long. That said, it’s not really the snow for many locals that’s the biggest challenge of a WNY Winter. Although, this year was especially hard and even quite dangerous during the December blizzard. The quiet danger of winter is usually the grey. Days of shorter sunlight mixed with near constant cloud cover can create a grey and dreary winter experience. While this might be merely deflating for some, for many it is a very heavy brick to carry in the backpack of already weighty lives.
It’s for this reason that I decided to blog about Winter today! Whoot whoot! Laughing yet? No, not really.?..OK, keep reading. February is frequently the most difficult month in my line of work. Curious readers unfamiliar with the ravages of seasonal depression symptoms might wonder why it isn’t the December holidays with all of the American materialism and family pressures. Or even January, when often in WNY it constantly snows. And after all, February is past the winter solstice. The days are getting longer and lighter each and every day now, right? Sure, holiday seasons are often rather busy in outpatient mental health offices too. That is true. The snow is fun for some and depressing for others. Yet, there are also all of the distractions and goal-posts of December and January. If we can just get passed _(insert holiday or school experience here)_. If you find Decembers challenging, and January difficult, the chances are pretty good that by February it feels a bit like a dark pit with some serious staying power. There is a cumulative effect, friends. The days are still dark, the skies often grey, and the only community celebrations are the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day. Do I really need to explain why neither of these is a great boost/distraction for many? Um, “Go Bills!” Please don’t hate me, WNY. Not everyone loves football. 😉
What to do when winter is feeling endless and hibernation is not an option for your species? Most therapists that I chat with ask their clients about blood work for vitamin D levels. We encourage our clients to check with their primary doctors about the “sunshine vitamin”. Supplementation is often recommended, especially if you live in an area like mine where the weather hides the sun or makes itself too unpleasant to encourage people to be outdoors much of the winter months. My friends in Vermont think I am a total wimp about the snow. Cool fact: Did you know that you can get Vitamin D in liquid form? For adults, not just in infant drops. This can be especially helpful for people who struggle with swallowing pills and for those with medical conditions that make proper adsorption of supplements a challenge. You can also get Vitamin D in an IV form, though I have heard this is quite expensive. I am not a medical provider and I am not offering medical advice here. Do I need to say that 2x to stay out of trouble? I am just sharing access to information that you can explore with your own PCP or other medical professional working with your clients. Here’s a trusted source to read all about what Vitamin D might or might not be able to do for you and/or your clients. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908269/
I will share that this is standard in my initial therapy assessment process. If there are depression symptoms, I ask for updated labs. The two most important to ask about as a therapist searching for the best whole person outcome in my experience?: Vitamin D and Thyroid TSH levels. I have lost count over the years just how many times, working together with a client’s primary physician, we have caught a medical issue that was contributing to low mood and was also very correctable.
Back to exploring “in the deep midwinter”. What else does an experienced Trauma Therapist do to beat back the grey of February? Well, I’m a bit of a sunshine hunter. I know, I just whined about the lack of it in WNY. I actively hunt the sun. So if there’s even 20 minutes of sunny in a day, you’d better believe I’m finding a way to get out in it. If it’s too cold for that, and/or exhaustion makes this an unreasonable goal, I take my golden retriever’s lead. He knows where to get his sunshine boost. There is a sunny spot on my living room floor and I am more than willing to make him share it. We can learn a great deal sometimes by watching our animal friends. Science doesn’t know for certain if it’s the added physical activity involved in getting outside or the actual sunshine that improves people’s moods (see above article link), but I can tell you I always feel just a little bit better and so do scores of my clients.
If you related better to my golden retriever option than to my suggestion of physical exercise outdoors, do not be hard on yourself. Self judgement has never been helpful. Self awareness sure. Notice the difference. The truth is that winter is a time of rest and reset for most of nature. All plant and animal life slows down. Why do we beat ourselves up for not wanting to continue the busy pace of warmer, brighter months? It’s OK to mindfully slow down. Mindfully is the key to something a friend once told me is called “Wintering“, NOT “giving into my depression“. Ouch, hear the judgment there? So, this doesn’t mean avoiding all people and activities, avoiding deadlines, or even hygiene (red flag there). Mindful Wintering means that we decide to cut back on social obligations temporarily, plan an earlier bedtime, take a day or two of vacation/personal time (yes, even though your PTO might be low after the holiday season…especially then) and do very little on purpose. Read a novel for pleasure, lay in a sun spot with your dog, talk about much of nothing with an old friend from college on the phone. BE UNPRODUCTIVE in a planned way. This mindful slowing down to be more gentle with your body, mind, and soul can actually head off some of the depressive symptoms that may crop up for those who are trying to “just push through it”, judging themselves harshly all the way. Some clients have told me over the years that when they truly embraced this idea, they found they got the most done internally. Winter became a time of examining priorities, laying the groundwork for future big energy days, a scaffolding for Spring goals.
If you spend enough time working with folks who have experienced significant trauma, you’re going to also see many people experiencing chronic pain. Yeah, I know, I promised some laughter and this is definately NOT funny. There is a strong correlation between chronic pain and complex trauma. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/chronic_painasp, also https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/chronic-pain-and-childhood-trauma-2018033012768
There are theories about why, and I have mine, but we’re not here to talk about that. Instead, we are looking at what helps. One of my clients (has given permission to share and there will be no identifying info) has both a truly terrible trauma history, severe auto-immune disease, and constant chronic pain. Here’s what she’d like you to know: she loves to share “dark and twisty” memes. The last one I saw stated, “Drink water. That way you can be hydrated while you suffer“. Some of her memes are just silly, involving cats taking over Christmas nativity scenes, or goofy cartoons connected to humorous observations of culture. Some of her collected memes are very pointed and dark. She explained that, “sharing these with people who get it makes me feel seen.” That’s powerful. So if you have a client or friend who shocks you by trusting you with some of their dark humor, try not to over react. Be curious. You too might find a trusted friend or fellow therapist to share your own dark/funny moment. Having a person who doesn’t turn away, who can help you feel seen when things are very hard….well, it’s light giving.
Pain experiences are often worse during the winter cold (seems obvious enough) and when depressive symptoms are higher (kind of a chicken/egg dilemma, but let’s remain practical). Here is some of what I do and often recommend. Locally here in WNY there are some places where you can go for a FIR Far-infrared radiant sauna treatment. Per the web page for Aura Salt Cave, (https://aurasaltcave.com/pages/infrared-sauna) “(FIR) heat provides all the healthy benefits of natural sunlight without any of the dangerous effects of solar radiation. FIR heat actually penetrates and warms the body so the heat energy is not lost trying to warm the air. FIR heat is not ultraviolet radiation, but a narrow band of energy within the 5.6 to 15 micron“. And here is what the National Institute of Health has to say about it. level.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3699878/. Again, I am not a medical provider. This is not advice, just information. Please check with you doctor first about whether or not this might be appropriate for you given your own medical background.
What I can tell you about FIR personally is that for $35 I can go experience feeling deeply warm on the coldest WNY winter day. It sort of feels like laying in the sun spot with my dog x5. My muscles feel much more relaxed, I become more aware of where I have been holding tension in my body, my arthritis bothers me less, and I have the lovely atmosphere that businesses like Aura Salt Cave cultivate to enjoy for a while. When people ask me about self-care, this is one of the things that comes to mind for winter. Not a glass of wine or a vacation somewhere sunny; alcohol is a depressant folks ( https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/a-z-topics/alcohol-and-mental-health) and most of us can not afford to just jet away. Deep (affordable) warmth.
These days I am slowly becoming a participant rather than just a fan of yoga. It used to be that I recommended gentle Trauma Sensitive Yoga TSY https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/111714p8.shtml (yes, such a thing does exist) for my clients, but never really poured into it for myself. I am an admittedly bouncy, physically uncoordinated human who has never had much success at any physical activities other than running, swimming, or hiking with my family. I trip over my own feet in aerobics, and I just could not see myself having the patience for yoga. Well, there is nothing like serious pain and injury to teach you how to slow down and learn to be with your body. As I continue to recover my former strength and flexibility this year after a back injury, yoga practice has become deeply helpful. Dr. Arielle Schwartz PhD is my favorite “go-to” for understanding the benefits of quality yoga practice, especially as it relates to trauma and pain. She is also an amazing Trauma Therapist, Author, Trainer, and deeply kind human being. You can learn more about her here. https://drarielleschwartz.com/therapeutic-yoga-classes-in-boulder/. Yoga is not just for fit 20 year olds who can stand on their heads wrapped in form fitting spandex. Nope; yoga can be for any size, shape, physical limitation, or emotional vulnerability. OK, you’ve been patient, here’s another dose of funny. One of my teenage clients gave me a magnet (which I proudly display on my file cabinet in my office). It has a picture of a skunk and states
” Most likely to fart during yoga”. Keep it real people, and don’t for get to laugh- even in February.
One thought on “Winter”
Thank You. The takeaways were helpful and I always like to laugh.
Fritz Perls said, “on the bottom of every shitpile, there’s a giggle’.
Let’s find/create the giggle!