Winter tends to bring out certain feelings in us – a heavy depression that seems to hang in the cold, dark air, or a dull, grey absence of feeling mixed with spikes of anxiety, making it hard to get out of bed and leave the house. It can be overwhelming to keep feeling anxiety or a lack of energy without knowing how to change it.
Sometimes it seems to me as if the winter brings the things we struggle with to the fore, making them harder to ignore, like the persistent tiredness that might actually be the sign of burnout or chronic fatigue. Why is it that sometimes things have to get much worse before they can get better? Although this experience is not at all pleasant, it can be a kick to get us to address some of our underlying patterns. This can feel like a daunting task, but it can be so rewarding.
A helpful way to think about fatigue or burnout is that our systems have been running at a level that is too high for us to maintain for a long time. When we’re stressed or anxious, even though it seems to be happening in our conscious thoughts, a lot of unconscious processes are going on at the same time. The so-called emotional centers of our brain (limbic system and brain stem) are below the level of conscious thought, but interact with our conscious brains in a complex feedback system.
Being stressed means that our “emotional brains” send messages via our nervous system and hormonal system to the rest of our bodies, basically getting us ready for action. Our heart rate and blood pressure are higher, muscle tension is higher, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are up, and our digestive and immune systems get turned down to channel energy to the action systems. When we’re in this fight/flight type of response, if we tune in to how our bodies feel, it can feel like being tensed up and closed in around the chest, as though we’re protecting against something or ready to run, as if it’s not okay (or safe) to relax.
This sounds dramatic, but it’s often happening on a subtle level that we’re not really paying attention to. It’s our normal background noise. We might be vaguely aware of which situations make us more stressed and anxious, but unable to break out of it, even with our best logic. Our emotional brains don’t always respond well to logic. We might even convince ourselves that it is impossible to change the situation; that’s just how it is.
Those action systems are designed to help us get out of stressful or threatening situations, but they’re also designed to be short-lived. If they go on for too long, we tend to shift from that more anxious state to a more depressed one. Our bodies change how they respond to the signals, and shift us into a what gets known as the freeze/flop response. That’s the one that feels like all your energy drained down to the floor, or like you’re paralyzed to the spot. We also get to a similar state if we learned to shut out stressful feelings, which can range from feeling quite numb, to feeling absent, foggy, and outside of our bodies.
These two systems can tend to oscillate, or we can be more stuck in one than the other. Both feel uncomfortable over a longer period of time, but it’s an important step to notice what they are trying to give you. They are ways that we try to cope with being in a tricky situation. The tense feeling might feel like it makes you stronger, or able to carry on regardless, able to defend yourself if something bad would happen. The numb feeling might seem as though it pushes down feelings that you really don’t want to feel, like being afraid or helpless. In their primal way, these patterns are trying to protect you. Thank them for that.
They are both strategies that we need to have access to at certain times. It’s just not helpful when they are active a lot of the time, without us knowing how to switch into a different mode. But your tension or collapsing are trying to achieve something for you, and it’s a good first step to acknowledge and be grateful for that.
But life is stressful, so how are we going to change any of this? Well, we can change how we react to stress. We can become what psychologists call more “resilient”, which means we don’t get flooded by those emotions of feeling anxious or shut down, but we manage to stay calm. When we’re calm, we’re able to think differently about what to do or how to change a situation.
In order to do that, we need to take things in slow motion, and look at exactly what is stressful or frustrating or anxiety-inducing for you. For example, many of us want to do something perfectly, and find it hard to say no, and tend to end up shouldering more responsibility than we are able to. Or, we are good at adapting to what others want but it seems unimaginable to work out what we actually want. It’s important to explore what is driving this, because it’s different for everyone. One useful step is to split this into a) thoughts and feelings, and b) of ourselves and others.
When we’re dealing with perfectionism, the thoughts might center around the idea that we’re not good enough, or stupid, or too slow, or useless. We might have this idea about ourselves, and be worried about other people also thinking this about us. Often these thoughts come with a critical-voice commentary on what we’ve done, which also tells us how we should do things: you need to be better/quicker; you always knew you’d fail.
Believe it or not, this voice is also trying to help us. We could call it a “manager”. Usually, it’s trying to protect us from certain feelings. A helpful question here can be: what is that voice afraid would happen if it stopped? Maybe it’s trying to protect us from feeling humiliated and ashamed. Maybe it’s afraid of being rejected, which is painful. Maybe it’s afraid that if it wouldn’t make you keep trying to do things a certain way, someone would be disappointed, or angry. If we’re dealing with finding it impossible to tune into what we actually want, it’s also helpful to look at the feelings level. Maybe the fear also centers on the reaction of the other people: if they don’t want it, it might feel like being negated or destroyed.
Making Friends with Feelings
At this point, we need to look at just why it’s so intolerable to have those feelings, and we need to learn how to make friends with them. They won’t destroy us. But usually we have a complicated set of associations with and reactions to those feelings, which often stem from somewhere earlier in our lives. Working with a therapist can be a good way to find how to navigate these waters, identifying where those patterns came from, and exploring them. There are often different levels that we encounter along the way, and it’s important to go step-by-step and not too quickly.
As well as this cognitive work, it can be useful to approach the emotions from the bodily level. Part of the stress is rooted in thoughts and feelings, but part of what is so unbearable about those thoughts and feelings is happening on the physiological level. Remember the descriptions of the fight/flight and freeze/flop responses. If the idea of someone else being disappointed with me is stressful, this means that I’ll be reacting in some version of those responses.
No matter how much progress I make on understanding the why and how of why other peoples’ disappointment is so horrible for me, and how to view it differently, it is likely that I will still be reacting on a more basic, unconscious level to it. Through working with a therapist on this physical level as well as the cognitive level, we can learn to shift out of the stressed physiological state into a relaxed and grounded one. This can mean learning to relax long-held muscles, or learning to reconnect to an area that gets shut off when we’re stressed, for example.
Over time, it becomes more possible to access that relaxed and grounded state even when someone might be disappointed by me saying no or expressing what I actually want. From the grounded place, we can learn to tolerate the uncomfortable emotions more easily, a bit like becoming a big container that is able to contain them without bursting. Often, those feelings then disappear and shift into other feelings: sometimes fear becomes curiosity, sometimes shame fades and anger appears, and then the anger dissipates too, and we feel very peaceful. When the emotions stop being so threatening, we’re more able to think and move with them.