Deep winter is here. Most of us know – somewhere in the back of our heads – that winter is a time for more rest, a time to restore. This is sage advice no matter what year it is. But 2020 has been no ordinary year. The world situation is tumultuous, the US even more so. Political polarization has raised anxiety, anger and sadness levels to new highs and lows, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. And then there is COVID.
COVID has brought our country and many of its people to its knees. Not a very large population overall has actually contracted the disease, and only a small percentage have died, but no one has escaped the changes and challenges the disease has brought upon us economically and culturally as a society, and physically and psychologically as families and individuals. It has been a grueling affair and it is not over yet.
I am not going to list the things that are troubling us. We have all been grappling with our own versions for several months now. It is constantly on our minds, in our conversations, and on the media. I’m a healthcare practitioner, so my focus is on our physical, psychological and spiritual health. And no matter how bad or negative a situation seems, I try to spin it around and look at it from different angles, look to see the upside or the constructive lessons are that I/we may learn.
In other articles I have talked about Lyme Disease, and how insidious and catastrophic that disease can be to individuals and how it has changed people behaviorally who live in Lyme-prevalent areas. I have worked with Lyme clients for decades, helping and watching many, many people be brought to their knees and rope’s end by the disease – often-times more than once – and what they had to do to come out the other side. When I talked with them, I kept hearing certain things echoed by person after person. What it came down to is that all of them, to one degree or another, had come to feel disconnected on a deep yet invisible level from many things, and from themselves most of all. All of the people who came out the other side of chronic Lyme had to make many deep changes in their lives in order to do so, and most of them came to thank Lyme Disease for waking them up to that hard truth. So I see that as being one of the big lessons offered to us by Lyme Disease.
What do I see as a big lesson for us to learn as individuals from COVID? Not so different from Lyme Disease. COVID has forced all of us to slow down, and for many, seemingly to a dead stop. And COVID is forcing us to be with ourselves more. Yes, we are a social species; but as a culture, and maybe as a species, most of us are terrified, anxiety-stricken, or depression-stricken when forced to be with themselves without distractions, to be more still, with not a whole lot to do. Most people would rather do almost anything else than be quietly alone with themselves, and not constantly immersed and distracted by endless things to do that preoccupy the mind. Most wisdom traditions have seen this as one of the deepest illnesses of our species, and they have offered many tools and techniques and words of wisdom to help us with this simple matter of being okay with being quietly alone with ourselves.
So why do I bring this up? Especially after nine-plus months of being stymied by COVID, when people are reaching the breaking point being forced to be distanced, slower and more contained. I bring it up because it is wintertime; and we are mammals. It is the time of year perfectly designed for us to be more insular, quieter, stiller, to take the time to restore.
We need this more than ever this year. Stressors from multiple directions and levels have been so universal and prolonged that these seriously elevated stress and anxiety levels have become normalized. We have seemingly adjusted. But this is an illusion. These stressors are still pulling on our energy reserves while bombarding our nervous systems and immune systems with more things to deal with. This needs to be acknowledged and factored in.
Also, whether we are aware of it or not, all of us are experiencing grief. Grief is what we feel when we have lost something dear to us. And while many people across the world are experiencing the grief of losing loved ones to this disease, everyone is experiencing the grief of losing a way of life. We have been in this Twilight Zone limbo of uncertainty for so long that people have forgotten what it is like to be together in large groups with no masks and no fear or paranoia of contamination. This is very grievous. Grief not acknowledged and honored takes its toll. And because it is happening to all of us, it too has become largely invisible and “normalized.”
Okay, enough of what is happening to all of us. What can we do about it? Here are some suggestions. This is not a time to be spending a lot of mental and physical effort trying to DO something. It is a time to BE. I know that everyone has been experiencing the equivalent of cabin fever since April, but winter is not the time to try to buck the system. And by system I mean the natural systems of our planet. We are creatures of Earth and so are designed to make maximal use of what each season presents to us. If we are smart we will follow the wisdom of Gaia and surf the seasons wisely. There will be plenty of time to DO when spring arrives. Be smart about it. Do you want to be healthy and ready to go next spring, your batteries recharged and your body fresh and tuned up? Then be wise and rest and restore more than you ever have, because this year you have lost far more energy than you think you have. You may not have visibly, physically burned it off in calories, but you certainly used a lot of energy to steel yourself to the weirdness of this year.
Please fight the urge to bust loose and do something new and huge right now. Accept the offering from COVID to learn how to be with yourselves even more this winter. Be like the bear, who surrenders to the deep dark and cold of winter and dreams of the new year to come. Here are some simple-to-understand things to remember to do for the next few months.
Sleep: Sleep more. We are meant to do so when the nights are longer. Regular sleep is absolutely essential to restore and refresh ourselves. Deep sleep is required for cranial-sacral fluid to wash the brain so that it is cleared of sludge buildup and is fresh and enlivened by morning. Don’t feel guilty about wanting or needing to sleep more. It is because you need it. Gift yourself with more sleep this winter.
Food: Eat really well and remember hydration. It doesn’t mean eat a lot or over-indulging in guilty food pleasures because the world has taken away so many other pleasures from you. No matter what your dietary zone, if there was ever a year when you had more time on your hands to prepare healthy meals, this is it. Whatever your means and access, try to eat as healthy and wholesome as possible. Lean on hearty soups and stews, blood- and bone-warming dishes. Become friends with a slow cooker. They are phenomenal inventions, especially for wintertime. It is not the time of year for leaning heavily on raw salads and cold smoothies. I am not saying eliminate cold foods, just don’t make them your whole meal or a major part of your meal. Have the raw salad as a side dish. Have a smoothie on occasion but be sure to add warming spices to rein in some of its coldness.
Exercise: Not doing does not mean doing nothing. One of the best ways to contend with anxiety and depression is exercise. One of the best ways to help cope with the molasses-ness of grief is to exercise. One of the best ways to vitalize the lymph-immune system and energy levels is to exercise. One of the best ways to raise endorphin levels (happy hormones) is to exercise. One of the best ways to improve lung health is to exercise. Lung health is vitally important during this time (more on that in a bit).
These three things – sleep, food, exercise – are the essentials. These are mandatory and should be factored into your schedule. Do it now while you have a more open schedule. One of the few bonuses that COVID has offered many people is that they have far more time on their hands, so far fewer excuses not to spend time doing these things. Home-cooked food, as a rule, is healthier than eating out. Most of us are not eating out much if at all these days, so another bonus for having the time to prepare home-cooked meals
There are a few other things that I would add that are essential to me but might not be to everyone else. Nonetheless, it would be good if you can do the following things, too.
Body-Mind-Spirit Restorative Practices: If you already have experience with these practices, then this is the time to be doing them more than ever. If you haven’t tried these practices yet, then I strongly encourage you to do so. They help on every levels. Meditation, yoga (especially restorative yoga, yin yoga, and yoga nidra) and qi gong are always the first that come to my mind. A simple Google search will undoubtedly reveal dozens more.
Eyes and Ears: Give your eyes a break. Eyes and vision are the quintessential part of our “doing” and activated side. We are a visually obsessed culture, and when we are in visual mode we are rarely in true rest mode. Most of us have become deeply attached to our smartphones and TV and computer monitors. I recommend you put a curfew on your vision. Let there be a break between focusing your eyes on bright screens and going to bed.
I will go one step further and encourage you to even take a break from reading right before bed. If that is the only way you can fall asleep, then go ahead. But I want to advocate for our ears and listening. If eyes and vision are the quintessential “doing” and active sense, then ears and hearing are the quintessential “being” and receptive sense.
To those of us who grew up before the communication techno-boom of the last 40 years: Remember the pleasure of being a teenager and listening to an album over and over while laying on your back with your eyes closed. Remember? What happened?! I am lobbying for a return to that pleasure. If books are absolutely necessary for your sanity, then use technology to gift yourself with having stories read to you at bedtime. I would just encourage you to listen to something restful and receptive – fiction, poetry — not self-improvement books or textbooks. Give your brain a rest.
Lung Health: Lungs (and breathing) are intimately connected to immune health and mental health. Lungs (and breathing) are also intimately connected to grief and PTSD. Lung health and good lung capacity are essential and worth working on. Breathwork is an essential part of meditation and yoga, and indeed, any practice goes better when awareness of breath is part of the picture. Practice methods that not only bring you into better connection with your breath, like meditation, but also practice techniques that improve lung capacity. Aerobic training of any kind, for instance. I also like properly done kriya yoga poses for this purpose. Practice breathing more calmly and slowly, especially when in stressful situations. It does wonders for maintaining equanimity and keeping the endocrine system from spiking into adrenalin mode.
Strong lung vitality radiates out through the skin and creates an exterior immune barrier. Breathing hard, as in walking briskly, running, swimming, exercising, etc., also markedly improves lymph flow, thereby strengthening the surface immune system. Our lungs are on the frontline of our immune defenses. The lungs are also most vulnerable to the elements (we inhale several times a minute, bringing the outside world into our lungs). That’s why Chinese medicine calls the lungs the Tender Organ. They are particularly susceptible in the fall, but because of everything that is going on with COVID, and stress stirring up PTSD, and grief, it would be wise to attend to our lung health for the rest of the winter.
Lungs like the taste of sweet and pungent (warm and spicy). Sweet foods, including all root vegetables, winter squashes, whole grains and fruit, cooked onion and garlic, are particularly nurturing to lungs. Pungent spices like ginger, cayenne pepper, and raw onions and garlic have a particular affinity for the lungs. Lungs also benefit immensely from good hydration.
Herbal and Supplement Suggestions:
Restoring the Core: What I am calling the Core the Chinese call the Kidneys (Kidney Yin and Kidney Yang). It is our reservoir of deep stored energy and constitutional vitality. A strong core is the foundation of a strong immune, nervous and endocrine system. In addition to everything I said above, the Kidney-Core is best restored in the wintertime, which is exactly where we are. Many of the foods that nurture the lungs also nurtures the Core. Also include mineral-salt rich foods (dark green leafy vegetables, many grains, many vegetables, mushrooms, sea vegetables (source them from Maine), meat, especially red meat, especially organ meat. And hydrate!
In the herbal world, the entire category of adaptogens helps the Core (astragalus, codonopsis, eleuthero, ashwagandha, rhodiola, licorice, to name a few). Medicinal mushrooms are in this category (shiitake, maitake, reishi, turkey tail, cordyceps, lion’s mane). I am also especially fond of an overnight steeped infusion of milky oat tops and nettle leaf. If you want, add holy basil/tulsi (another adaptogen) to the mix when you re-heat the nettle-oat infusion in the morning.
Strengthen and Protect Lungs: Adaptogens help here too. So do the mushrooms. Many of them are sweet, which lungs like. Lungs also like pungent, as mentioned above. A few herbs with particular strengthening ability for the lungs include schisandra, licorice, mullein, shatavari, American ginseng and marshmallow root. Herbs that help to keep the lungs clear of phlegm build-up include ginger (fresh best), garlic (fresh), onion (fresh), angelica root, platycodon/balloon flower root. Pungent herbs that are also antimicrobial include thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, osha, and lomatium. And hydrate!
Herbs for the Nervous System: Adaptogens are on this list. Mushrooms are on the list. Mineral-salt herbs are on the list (oats, nettle leaf). There is incredible diversity of herbs that help the nervous system with stress (anxiety, depression, etc.) Calmative nervines (antianxiety and antidepressant herbs) are plentiful. Many of these herbs have already been listed. A few other herbs I use a lot here include motherwort, blue vervain, mimosa, rose, scullcap, passionflower, St. John’s wort, white peony, agrimony, and cinquefoil, to name just a few. Aromatherapy and essential oils are of particular importance here. Inhalation therapy is a great way to get medicines directly into the nervous system. Flower Essences also shine in this area.
Let’s not forget the vital role that the endocannabinoid system plays in helping our nervous system deal with life stresses. Since they are now basically legal, I would be remiss not to mention the incalculable benefits of cannabis (both the regular THC-rich varieties and the THC-stripped varieties) and psilocybin mushrooms (microdosing for those who would rather not feel the psychedelic effects; and dosing for those who would). Also, LSD (same rules apply for microdosing and dosing).
Supplements: In a perfect world we would like to get our vitamins and minerals and other vital nutrients from our daily diet, but there are a few supplements I would encourage you to consider. Vitamin D is one, especially in winter. Another is omega 3 fatty acids (flax oils, fish oils). And probiotics if you are not able to maintain good bowel flora on your own through probiotic foods (active culture fermented foods) and prebiotics foods (soluble bulk fiber that healthy bowel bacteria like to eat).
This is all a lot to consider. If I could order everyone to follow this kind of protocol for the winter, I would. I want all of you to be as healthy and resilient as possible – in body, heart and mind – for 2021. COVID isn’t going anywhere for the rest of the winter. Take this time to dream what you want to be like and feel like (in your health) for the warmer months of 2021. Dream of new projects and ideas you want to manifest but save the groundbreaking of these projects for the spring, when the frozen ground is actually breaking and thawing, and the world is coming alive again. For now, dream, and take excellent, loving care of yourselves.