winter worriesBy Sarah O’Leary

Winter has a reputation for being the season of sadness. Seasonal affective disorder afflicts many people in winter, with frequent reports of depression. But anxiety may be even more popular.

You may not necessarily associate anxiety with the winter season, but in fact, many people experience a spike in their anxiety level this time of year. From an acupuncture perspective, this makes sense.

In acupuncture, humans are viewed as microcosms of the natural world that surrounds them, so seasons play a significant role in how we feel. And each season has an associated emotion. Winter’s emotion is fear. For many people, fear is experienced as an increased sense of anxiety.

Winter unease makes sense when you consider that most of our ancestors, regardless of where they’re from, experienced anxiety when winter hit. This time of the year would invariably slow the growing season and increase the risk of famine. Would they have enough to get through the winter? Would they have ample wood to stay warm? Was their shelter adequate?

Winter anxiety can come from several sources, but it’s often rooted in the same question our ancestors asked: “Is there enough?” Anxiety of the winter variety is the unsettling feeling of not knowing what is going to happen next.

What are the signs of winter anxiety?

Everyone experiences winter anxiety differently, but in my clinic I’ve noticed some recurring themes. Here are some of the ways that winter anxiety commonly manifests:

Obsessing over bills and expenses, or perhaps avoiding them
Overthinking income
Nervousness at work around job security or change
Overeating, or eating when you’re not hungry
Envy
Compulsively checking storm forecasts
Feeling uncomfortable in transitions, such as home buying or selling
Wanting more clearly defined relationships
Obsessing over uncertainties
Waking up in the early morning with a busy mind
Low back pain or knee pain
Headaches at the top or back of the head

How to settle the winter worries

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of winter anxiety, here are five tips for making it through the season a little more peacefully.

Add 30 minutes of sleep

Sleep deprivation is one of the primary causes of anxiety. Sleep plays an important role in emotional processing and how we respond to everyday stressors. Simply starting your bedtime routine 30-60 minutes earlier can have a significant effect on your anxiety level.

Try half-caff

Caffeine alters our mood. We tend to think of it as a mood elevator, and often it is—it blocks the depressant function of a chemical called adenosine, which enhances alertness, concentration, and memory. However, in excess, or in people who tend toward anxiety, caffeine can trigger panic-like feelings. Try switching to half-decaffeinated coffee. Eventually, you may be able to lose coffee altogether, or have tea some days.

Limit screen time

Research is now showing that too much screen time can actually change our brains and nervous systems, and affect how we process emotion—and not in a good way. In winter, it’s easy to spend more time indoors and on screens. As many parents do with kids, put limits on your own screen time. Outside of work, where computers often are non-negotiable, try limiting screen time to two hours a day. See if you notice a difference in your anxiety level. If it improves, experiment with just one hour a day.

Meditate

Meditation is one of the simplest ways to reduce anxiety. And it’s especially helpful when it’s colder and a bit harder to get moving outside. Meditation is easier than ever, with apps and guided meditations readily available. Headspace, one of my favorite apps, has meditations specifically for anxiety.

Get acupuncture

Acupuncture can help your system fall into alignment with winter. In winter, our Kidney system in particular is vulnerable, especially if you’re burning the candle at both ends. Acupuncture helps bring the body back into balance, which will help you feel better rested and more trusting in however you are responding to the season. Find an acupuncturist near you.

Photo by Shelli Zadra

sarah oleary_baltimore acupunctureSarah O’Leary is an acupuncturist and the owner of Mend Acupuncture in Baltimore, Maryland. She knew she found her calling when she saw how effectively acupuncture could cut through stress. Her first impression came when she was working in a Baltimore city prison—in a roomful of inmates who were resting with acupuncture needles, there was a palpable calm. When she’s not in the clinic, Sarah is finding her own calm while being a mom of two.

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