How do I stay out of winter depression?
After my last email I received an interesting question, and I’d like to share my answer with you.
Maybe you recognize some of it.
And I hope you’ll find something that might be helpful to you as well.
The question was:
What has helped you to stay out of depression when winter arrives, and your body goes into hibernation mode?
I’ll tell you what has helped me and what I’ve learned about my own bodily systems.
First I needed to understand what was happening in my body that caused the depression.
The movement of my body into hibernation mode is totally natural.
Yet the depression that often followed is not.
Let’s start by looking at these two ladders of the Nervous System.
The nervous system has 3 parts: Ventral – Sympathetic – Dorsal.
As long as the Ventral part stays active, you can access the Sympathetic (mobilizing) and the Dorsal (immobilizing) parts in a way that is healthy for your mind and body.
You can see that in this ladder (Regulated states):
In a world where there would be no threats that would be a well-functioning system.
Yet since we live in a world where there are threats, we need a system that warns us, keeps us safe and alive.
That’s why we need our defense system.
As soon as our nervous system detects threat, the Ventral part gets overridden by survival mechanisms such as a sympathetic response (mobilization) or a dorsal response (immobilization). Your social Ventral goes offline since survival is your priority now.
Your nervous system constantly checks inside and outside of you for cues of safety and cues of danger. The nervous system searches for connection, context, and choice.
If the nervous system detects any cue of danger the defense system gets activated.
These cues of danger can be anything, from a physical disbalance, a thought that arises, a smell that reminds your nervous system of danger to the idea that you don’t have a choice.
It might be something you are not even aware of.
For me, these last two years I had an even harder time experiencing connection, context and choice, due to regulations, lack of choice, persuasion, blaming and shaming, messages of fear and separation that were spread by governments in the outside world.
That means my nervous system was all the time receiving cues of danger.
Let's look into your defense system a bit more.
This is what the Defense ladder looks like:
In a healthy situation when the defense system notices there is no real threat or it notices the threat is gone, it moves back to a safe, ventral state.
Yet very often, due to many reasons (maybe I’ll talk more about those in the future), the nervous system gets stuck in a defense response.
A body that stays too long in a sympathetic response will get burned out because of all the adrenaline and cortisol that are released. Your body and brain get exhausted.
A body that stays too long in a dorsal response will shut down deeper and deeper until depression follows.
You need your Ventral to be able to rest, digest, heal, repair and recharge.
So you can imagine what happens to your body when your Ventral stays offline for too long.
What we need for our system to move flexible between states, is a strong and healthy Ventral Vagal system to return to.
Building a strong Ventral Vagal system and learning your nervous system to move flexible through states is a very important skill to stay healthy, both mentally and physically.
And even when your system is rigid like mine was (due to a challenging childhood), you can train it to become more flexible. Maybe for the first time in your life?
For me getting very intimate with all the flavors of my nervous system was very helpful.
It helps me to notice and recognize where I’m at and what I need.
If I notice for example there is a flavor of sympathetic arising in me, I need to get rid of the excess of that energy and move my body.
Because I explored all the flavors of sympathetic, I know how it feels in my body and which thoughts and behaviors go with it. That helps me recognize where I’m at and tells me that I need to interrupt my state and regulate myself.
If I’ve activated my dorsal system already, I’ll choose something else: I need to bring in a tiny bit of energy without overwhelming myself. If I would use the same active movement as I would in Sympathetic that would probably have the opposite effect and just deepen my dorsal activation.
That's why it's so important to know in which survival state you are before you choose your tools to move back into Ventral, into safety.
And Co-regulation is a big go to and help when you want to activate your Ventral again.
Co-regulation means getting back to a place of safety (Ventral) with the help of someone else.
We humans are biologically created in such a way that co-regulation is a necessary part of us staying happy and healthy.
So that means reaching out to someone, maybe for a chat, a cup of tea or just being together.
Even small talk in the supermarket can support your regulation.
So, I recommend talking about the weather, how great the chocolate is you’re buying, or something else that might feel like a meaningless conversation to you.
It has an important human function and the risk of your nervous system getting triggered into a defense response is much less with small talk than when you’d have an in-depth conversation about politics or the current situation in the world.
So what do I do when I notice I’m in a defensive sympathetic or dorsal state?