It's my 11th winter here in New Hampshire, and every fall, as I anticipate what's to come, there is one thought that I find myself preoccupied with: am I going to make it through the winter without feeling depressed? As the days shorten, I find myself increasingly anxious, wondering if my seasonal depression will emerge once again. The weary winter brings prolonged struggles, particularly as my young children (ages 1-9) battle stomach bugs, the flu, and COVID-19. These illnesses often prevent us from engaging in communal activities, leaving me feeling isolated and alone.
Amidst this loneliness, my outlook on everything becomes bleak. Every year, I find myself grappling with two central cognitive distortions. The first is 'all-or-nothing' thinking, a cognitive distortion where I see things in binary terms. This cognitive distortion is characterized by perceiving things in extreme, absolute terms, leaving no room for any middle ground. I begin to view situations as either perfect or a complete failure. For instance, if I sell only 200 Bible study journals instead of the anticipated 250, this mindset would incorrectly lead me to believe that I've failed at life.
The second distortion is overgeneralization. This is where one negative experience, particularly experiencing the winter when my energy wanes and apathy sets in, leads me to a broader, pessimistic view of life. Overgeneralization prompts me to take one instance or example and generalize it as an overall pattern. Essentially, it leads me to conclude that something will always happen, based on a single or few occurrences.
As someone who has intermittently struggled with depression, I've noticed how seasonal depression is a battle each year.
As I reflect on what to share with you about seasonal depression, two concepts that I have used to cope this year consistently emerge: sensuality and awe. Now, sensuality in this context goes beyond its usual association with sexuality – it's something different, and I hope this piques your interest. This year, embracing sensuality has completely transformed my experiences, and seeking out awe-inspiring moments has been a powerful tool in combating seasonal depression. Sensuality, in essence, is about using all your senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – to remain fully present. It's a practice that anchors me in the now, helping to avoid the traps of catastrophizing or excessive worrying about the future. It's about being grounded and present.
Experience the Ordinary through Sensuality
This winter, practicing sensuality has been life-changing for me, enhancing my presence with myself and with God. Here is a practical example of how I have engaged in sensuality this year. Here's how you can try it: Start by finding something cozy, like a cup of coffee. Hold it in your hands and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Now engage your senses. Smell the coffee — what aromas do you detect? Taste it — what flavors unfold? Feel the mug — what is its texture? Finally, reflect on a memory associated with this cup. Was it a gift? Did you buy it during a joyful moment in your life? Engaging in this practice helps deepen my connection to the present moment and meaningful experiences.
Engaging my senses helps me to stay in the present, and I will often breathe deep, and ask myself what I can notice about the here and now, then after grounding myself in the presence, I ask myself how I am experiencing God in the here and now. I allow myself to be present to Him in the moment. You can take a blanket and quickly run your hands over it. If you have a blanket, could you take note of how it feels. Then you can look at the blanket and engage your eyes. Ask yourself what color is the blanket. As you are wrapped up in the blanket, ask yourself where God is right now. Experience God with you, in the present.
I also frequently turn to breath prayers as a way to connect with God during the chaotic moments of my day. A breath prayer is a short prayer that you can recite in one inhalation and exhalation, which encourages you to remember God as often as you breathe. This practice heightens our awareness of His presence and makes us more mindful of God in the present moment. As you explore this form of prayer, let it become a rhythmic reminder to stay aware and conscious of God's presence, especially through your darkest days.
Example of a breath prayer:
Inhale: When I am afraid,
Exhale: I put my trust in you.
Inhale: We love because,
Exhale: he first loved us
(1 John 4:19)
Another effective strategy for combating seasonal depression involves embracing awe and seeking the extraordinary in everyday life. This approach is grounded in scientific data; awe is an emotion that has only recently become a focus of research and study.Dictionary.com defines awe as, "a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder." Awe happens more often than you think. Awe is a feeling we get when we see a beautiful sunrise, hike a mountain, hear a beautiful piece of music, focus our attention on other places than our phones, and catch a glimpse of something God is doing around us, or in us. In one article I recently read it says that science shows that experiencing awe is good for our health, develops more kindness in us, and helps us to be more curious and present.
Experiencing awe can happen more often if we take time to notice, or take time to be present with each, and every moment.
The article urged people to not underestimate the power of awe:
"In the face of these big cultural trends, our own individual actions may seem meaningless. Yet the research on awe suggests that modest steps can have a major impact on our well-being. So don’t underestimate the power of goosebumps—actively seek out the experiences that nurture your own hunger for awe, be it through appreciating the trees in your neighborhood, a complex piece of music, patterns of wind on water, the person who presses on against all odds, or the everyday nobility of others."
Yet, we also know that placing ourselves in front of God's handiwork creation, makes us think of the Creator.
The Psalms frequently express awe at God’s creation and works. For example, Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." Reflecting on God's power, purpose holiness, and majesty are helpful antidotes to feelings of worthlessness, or that life is not worth living.
As I was writing this article, a poem popped up on my Facebook, and I could not believe how perfectly it fit into this blog, and I want to share it with you here:
Dear friend, I deeply empathize with the challenge of seasonal depression, a battle I'm all too familiar with. I am the first to say if you need to go on medication, please do. I understand this article is not a fix-all. Therapy has helped me so much over the years. But, I hope that if you're also facing this struggle, these practical strategies will help you in the fight. Let's strive together to remain engaged and connected with God's presence around us as we use these practical guidelines to help.