by Dr. Steven Johnson
If we don’t address negative emotional thoughts during this time of year, it can lead to the winter blues and even depression. When the quiet inner joy and gentle light of Winter’s journey is overwhelmed by feelings of despair, anger, sadness, isolation or fear; then we are blinded to our own inner strength, spirit and courage. Waking up to the power of our thinking heart can help us to overcome the “winter blues” by warming our hearts and pointing us to our inner light and the comfort of hope. A small daily practice of mindfulness can change the thoughts that clutter our heads and the stressful feelings that so often permeate our hearts.
If you are feeling down and vulnerable this winter, you’re not alone. Recent events in the news can leave us numb and the modern social fabric of supportive family life and friends is changing, not always for the better. It is easy to feel confused and isolated. More of us are on edge, sad and feel uncertain about the future. For many the winter and holidays can intensify negative, sad and fearful feelings leading to frustration, anxiety and depression. Unmet expectations, falling short on our New Year’s resolutions, missing a loved one, colder darker days and financial pressures can further promote a feeling of hopelessness, robbing us of the simple joys and quiet spirit of wintertime. In the end these feelings and emotions are reflections of circulating hormones and neurotransmitters overwhelming our nervous system making us feel helpless. Yet, both science and ancient spiritual practices tell us we can impact all of this in a positive way. We just need to unlock the powers of our heart and mind that lead to coherence and rebalancing of our inner milieu. It is true, you might say, that life-challenges, stressors and negative feelings never fully go away, but our life perspective and soul resilience can improve, removing self-doubt and restoring our inner confidence and strength to meet the emerging future streaming towards us.
Here are some meditative tips, tested to be of help by the science of heart-math, and used in my medical practice. These can help prevent the negative chatter in our minds and overcome the winter blues and feelings of anxiety, anger and depression.
- Don’t over-extend yourself.
Adding too much to your plate can turn what should be a thoughtful time of year into an extra load of stress. Instead, create space to enjoy simple things like baking, cooking or creative hobbies. Take some extra time and reach out to the people in your life whom you love and care about, without expecting anything in return. You can avoid stress overload by slowing down in the midst of all the activities and checking in with yourself about how you’re really feeling. Observe your stress, vitality and mood and agree to listen to your body, heart and mind and act on it.
A simple heart-math tool proven to help us dissipate stressors is called “notice and ease”. Use it as soon as you start to feel negative feelings or tension. Acknowledge and observe what you’re experiencing – face and “befriend” the reaction by placing it in your heart, and then let it ease out of your system like blood flowing out to an endless periphery. Picture that the whole universe, that which gave you the gift of life, supports you and let that “ease” your heart. If you try and fight against the feeling or push it away, it just hardens and drains you. This can eventually make you sick. Keep using this tool for one minute or longer until you feel lighter, even if it is just a little at a time. Even a little ease can bring some light and change your perspective1.
- Step 1: Face and admit what you’re feeling.
- Step 2: Try and name the feeling.
- Step 3: Tell yourself to e-a-s-e as you gently focus your attention in the area of the heart. Relax as you breathe, and e-a-s-e the stress out.
By admitting a feeling, whatever it is – worry, anxiety, frustration, anger, resistance or even a vague disturbance you can’t put your finger on – you can slow down the emotional stress reactions running through your system and even shift your hormones and neurochemistry towards balance. In step three, you redirect your soul (consciousness) to work for you, which strengthens your powers of self- determination and self-regulation. Afterwards, consider permeating your consciousness with one of the verses below, repeating it several times, focusing on the content without intellectualizing it or wandering off in your mind. Memorize these verses if you’re able so you can practice anywhere and anytime. Heart-math science has proven the heart is an organ of perception and we can learn to perceive inner warmth and joy in all things large and small. It is a daily practice, like the sustaining rhythms of day and night.
I think of my Heart (verse by Rudolf Steiner)
I think of my heart
It enlivens me
It warms me
I put my trust
In the eternal self
That dwells in me,
2. Practice kindness and patience:
This can nourish your heart and spread to others, but it needs to be practiced with daily affirmation to provide the benefits. Developing a coherence between heart, mind and action can help you activate positive feelings of kindness and patience bring an inner peace and quiet joy.
- Step 1: Heart Focus – Focus your attention in the area of your heart. Try to sense a shining light and warmth in your heart region.
- Step 2: Heart-Focused Breathing – As you imagine light and warmth within your heart, imagine your breath is flowing in and out through that area fanning the flame of light. Feel your body expand and contract by focusing on your diaphragm and not the breathing itself. Breathe slowly and gently in through your heart and slowly and easily out through your heart, allowing it to expand and contract.
- Step 3: Heart Feeling – Continue to breathe through the area of your heart. Feel the light and warmth expand to your limbs. Activate feelings of genuine appreciation, kindness and patience as you breathe. Keep doing this until you feel impatience, irritation or stress release. What feelings do you want to align yourself with?
3. If you’re feeling sad, reach out to others. Share your light and warmth. Doing something with a friend can yield a quiet warmth of the heart that will nurture you.
4. If a loved one is absent or a relationship was broken, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Talk about missed loved ones and fond memories and emphasize the positive aspects of a relationship thathas been lost. Allow yourself to put more energy into the relationships you do have now and create new memories.
5. A great way to enjoy more of the winter spirit is by keeping your focus on genuinely appreciating and caring for others. Ask yourself before bed and again each morning, “Who can I show a little more appreciation to, or who can I express more genuine care and kindness to today?” It can be as simple as opening the door for someone or telling someone that you appreciate them. Genuine gestures of care and appreciation can lift the spirit of another person and are a gift to yourself in how much better it can make you feel. There is no greater purpose then to serve others and we are all free to do this in some way.
6. Winter is an important time to find a deeper heart connection with people. Make that your focus and priority. Spend more time enjoying people and their spirit, and that can help rekindle your own sense of inner warmth and joy and elevate the self to a higher purpose and meaning than the everyday clutter and fetters of day-to-day life. Connecting with pets and animals are also worthy connections. Just be sure you are not hiding from people!
A meditation verse given to nurses by Rudolf Steiner
Within the heart there lives
In radiant light
the human will to help.
Within the heart there works
In warmth-giving power
the human force of love T
hen let us bear
the souls full will
into heart-warmth into heart light
Then we work to heal
Those in need of healing
Through God’s sense of grace.
Simple meditative practices like these, when taken up daily, are proven to reset the balance of the mind, easing difficult behavior patterns connected to depression and anxiety. Over time this practice teaches us how to purposefully respond rather than react to stressful situations, removing the sense of being a victim of bad things. This can prevent the downward spiraling of negative feelings and emotions so easily triggered with the winter blues, or any stressful time, for that matter. You can find your own verses as well, which reflect your higher sense of self. Research shows that even 10 minutes of meditative-mindfulness practice a day can prevent relapses of depression and anxiety. In Europe this type of practice with cognitive counseling is the first line therapy for depression and anxiety disorders2.
Let’s conclude with an observation I have made in my own medical practice. When a person is engaged with meditation or mindfulness practices on a daily basis, they become more attuned to themselves. As a result, natural medicines like St. John’s Wort, Bryophyllum and others, work more effectively. As an Anthroposphic and integrative physician I try to use pharmacologic treatments as little as possible. I want people to heal out of their own self-determination because we want real change if possible. Meditative practice is the best way to do this. Prescription drugs can be a positive bridge (and in some cases, are very necessary), but they are rarely a long-term cure. I also observe that when a person creates the time and space to allow for something new, their mental health also improves. For instance, regular exercise, walking, art therapy, movement therapy (like therapeutic eurythmy), and creative hobbies facilitate change by opening your mind up to something new and different. This can be refreshing and revitalizing. A good therapist can also make a difference if you are stuck or unable to get started. If depression or anxiety is severe it is best to get some help from a professionally- trained person.
There is always hope! With hope and self-determination anything is possible. Hopefully with daily practice we can overcome the winter blues and experience the gentle light, joy and warmth of the winter’s rose. I believe we are all a “sun” and we just forget it all too easily. Like the sun rising and setting giving grace to each new day, we must have the confidence to seek this sun in ourselves every morning and every evening. Then, day by day, we can slowly become stronger in ourselves.
More Radiant than the Sun (meditation verse by Rudolf Steiner)
More radiant than the Sun
Purer than snow,
Finer than the ether
Is the Self
The spirit in my heart.
This self am I
I am this self
I am the self
The self am I
The spirit in my heart
Is the self
It is finer than the ether
Purer than the snow
More radiant than the sun
- Transforming Depression: The Heart Math Solution to Feeling Overwhelmed, Sad, and Stressed. Paperback – September 1, 2007 by Doc Childre
- “A real chill pill: the power of mindfulness in the treatment of anxiety disorders.” Presented at Psych Congress 2019: San Diego, CA; October 4, 2019