Seasonal Mood Shifts: 3 Ways to Stay Grounded This Fall

For many the season of autumn is difficult. Depending on where you live, it’s full of things dying, leaves falling, colder weather, darker days, and a general sense of ending. In addition, to the messiness of leaves and seeds flying around, it gets blustery which can be hard on our nervous systems.

According to Esienberg et al. (2010), the changing of seasons and sunlight decreases shifts the dopamine systems. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that helps us feel pleasure. When the seasonal changes shift our ability to feel pleasure we have to make sure to find ways to bring pleasure into our lives.

The change in seasons can be tough on our physical systems and impact our mental health. Here are some ways to make sure you are staying on track as we move through fall and into the chilly, crisp winter season. 

  1. Get Your Schedule Figured Out: 

If you are like a lot of people you’ll probably feel a little off your routines as we transition from the lazy long days of summer in the northern hemisphere to the short, cooler, darker days of fall and winter. This is a time of returning to schedules and getting “recommitted” after the fun of summer. Make sure you spend some time each day planning. This skill gets missed by many but is very important if you want to reach your goals. You must spend time planning. Not planning is planning to fail at your goal. 

Not only do you need dedicated time each day to plan your day/end your day and prepare for tomorrow, you also need time each week to review the week and set the next week up for success. 

Prioritize this simple step and watch your world shift from frazzled and chaotic to structured and manageable. The trick here is to make sure you are setting aside some dedicated time. Get out your calendar of choice (I love my Commit30 planner and journal) and write in 10 minutes at the start and end of each day for daily review and 30 minutes to an hour for weekly review. This is must have time, so make sure you are picking times you can commit to. 

During this time your job is to review your schedule, make shifts, and take things off that do not need to be done after all. It is also a time for you to rate your day. I like using a 1-10 scale. At the end of each day, I pick a number between 1 – it sucked and 10 – it was amazing. At the end of each week I average the daily numbers to get a weekly rating. This allows me to see if I am living my priorities and feeling effective. Just like my children’s report card, I’m looking for a B or better (8/10 or 80%). Anything lower than that means I need to make some adjustments. Maybe I just had an off day or maybe the review shows I am focused on things that do not bring me enough joy to sustain my day. This simple scale allows me to quickly adjust my life to make sure my focus is aligned with what I want to be doing. 

Note: The daily rating is a gut check. Do not overthink it or you’ll justify what is not working. It is a quick check-in and the first number that pops up is it. Sometimes I make a note regarding the number – why is it high or low to help me in my weekly review. 

2) Watch Your Consumption Habits and Mind Your Reactions: 

I feel like I talk about this sort of thing all the time … what you put into your system is what you will get out. I work with so many people in my office who are feeling low energy or angry and do not see the connection to the things they are eating, how they are sleeping, or what they are watching on TV. So many are disconnected from the direct effects our consumption has on us. 

It is a great skill of the body … the ability to adapt and conserve energy to be effective … or just survive. The body gets good at figuring out what you are consuming and then adapting. This fall pay attention to what you are eating, listening to, watching, and who you allow in your space. Notice how you feel after you engage with these things. Do they uplift you, inspire you, or deplete you? If it is depleted you feel, it is time for a detox. Take a break from the news, turn off the angry or discriminatory music, unhealthy/unsupportive food choices, and get away from the toxic person in the office as quickly as possible. 

Make sure you are getting enough healthy food. Typically this time of year we begin to crave heavier, richer foods to help us “warm” from the inside out. Notice if you begin to overeat or are turning to sugary foods for additional fuel. These are signs that you are distracted from your body and need to pay attention to the shift in personal needs.

As we begin to crave the heavier, rich foods it is important to pay attention to amounts. We can eat a whole big plate of lettuce in the summer’s need for cooler foods, but try a whole big plate of pasta and cheese and watch yourself grow – in the wrong directions. Follow the seasonal foods. Opt for organic and local when you can and make sure you are using enough fats, proteins, and carbohydrates for your individuality. Need healthy choices for the upcoming holidays? Read more here.

Then make sure you are present and mindful while you eat. Eating mindfully helps us return to listening to our bodies and avoid overconsumption. These tips will help you feel reconnected to basic nurturing for yourself. Taking care of ourselves is important in feeling grounded and self-regulated (able to handle stressful situations). 

Although we cannot always control what we are exposed to, we are always in control of how we respond to it. It is your responsibility to manage your reactions to your environment. As we begin to notice what is going on around us, we will begin to see that what is happening outside is also happening inside. What I am internally experiencing will be reflected in my outer world. This is a powerful realization. The more you work with how you respond to things the more you will be able to shift your mood back toward the positive quickly and the less you will even have to deal with negativity. It just will not be showing up in your world.

Does this mean you are living in Lala land? No, it means you are better at filtering out what you do not want to pay attention to. According to Rohan et al. (2011), in the winter and fall people who are sensitive to the changing seasons tended to ruminate, have more automatic thoughts, and more dysfunctional thoughts related to light and dark. Your attention goes where you put it, so be careful what you give it to.

3) Make sure you move:

As we move into colder months and darker days in the northern hemisphere, it is easy to stop moving and get sedentary. Instead of heading for the couch or pulling the covers back over your head, make a plan, dedicate time, and commit to yourself. Have your workout clothes ready to go and appropriate for the season so you can change quickly into gear that keeps you warm while your move (if needed). Just knowing it is ready to go can help you get out of bed or avoid the after-work couch that likes to call your name. 

I know this video is about spring … but she discusses some good ideas we can use for fall, too.

For many, physical movement needs change with the seasons. You might find that running outside is really not an option for you or that the shifts to your schedule as school starts back up become overwhelming as you fit in carpooling duties again.

Shift your workouts to match your body during the winter months. You may find your workouts are more about strength and power than endurance and speed as the season change and energy around you gets heavier with the shift in light and temperatures. Follow what feels good and make sure you are working within both your training zones and your nervous system needs.

As in number 1 above, set your schedule, prioritize dedicated time, and commit to yourself. Make these “appointments” in your calendar non-negotiable. You might say I need to have 5 workouts a week, however, if you do not schedule them, you will find yourself trying to fit them all in on days 6 and 7. Schedule them and even if you have to maneuver your day, keep them on the same day to get them done, feel successful, and stay on track. Want some ideas for winter workouts? Read more here. 

Make sure to treat yourself to grounding bodywork to round out your physical practices. Maybe you want a massage or restorative yoga class. A lovely practice you can do at home is called Abhyanga or self-massage of the body with warm sesame oil. I love this practice in the fall and spring. It is very grounding during the windy shifts in the seasonal changes. Not to mention, the luxury of rubbing the body with warm oil, soaking in the warm tub, and then enjoying the softness of my skin for days. This is such a delicious practice for so many reasons and very helpful to keep my energy calm and focused.

As we move through the cooler seasons work to ground yourself within your own experiences. Notice how you feel as you structure your schedule, notice how external items impact your internal experience, and how your body feels as you move and eat according to its changing needs this fall. 

References:

Eisenberg, D. P., Kohn, P. D, Baller, E. B., Bronstein, J. A., Masdeu, J. C., and Berman, K. F. (2010). Seasonal Effects on Human Striatal Presynaptic Dopamine Synthesis. Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (44). 14691-14694. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1953-10.2010

Rohan, K. J., Nillni, Y. I., Mohan, J. N., Roecklein, K. A., Sitnikov, L., Hagga, D. A. F. (2011). Cognitive vulnerability in moderate, mild, and low seasonality. [Abstract]. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, (199)12. p 961–970. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e3182392948. Retrieved from: https://tcsedsystem.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.tcsedsystem.idm.oclc.org/docview/917738676?accountid=34120


Which Stage of Change Are You In?

Can you identify which stage of change you are in? Can you hold space for yourself with grace and compassion as you work to change your behavior, thoughts, perceptions, and attitudes? Can you be kind to others as they work the change process in their own lives?

Pre-contemplation – I am not thinking about changing at all, I see no problems, and I do not need to change anything right now.

Contemplation – something needs to shift, I might not know exactly what or how to make it happen but I know I need to do something. 

Preparation – I know what needs to change and I know what I need to do to get things started. I am seeking support and the items I need to be successful in my new change (i.e. getting the gym membership and new shoes, buying the right foods for my meal plan, finding a 12-step sponsor)

Action – I’m working on taking the steps that need to change. I am in the grind of changing my life for the better. I am focused on the daily steps to make my goal come true. 

Maintenance  – I’m doing it! I have changed my behavior, perspective, and my life. Now it is about sticking to my goals and keeping my eye on the prize for the long term. 

Sometimes relapse back to our old behaviors and attitudes happens. Work to get back on track as quickly as possible. It is not in never having a relapse but in how quickly we return to our more healthy focus that we want to measure our success. How quick do we recognize, stop the old behavior or thoughts, and return to the path of our goal? That’s the true measure of success for us. 

Overall, remember that change is hard. It can be challenging and moment to moment changes on the path. Your goal is to keep your eye on the prize!

Need more? Read Monday’s article on 3 steps to making change happen in your life here.

Photo credit: Social Work Tech

Working with Ambivalence … the parts of you that want to change & the parts that don’t.

Ever wonder why it is so hard to make big changes … or even small ones for that matter? It is often because we have what is known as ambivalence. This concept that part of us wants to change and part of us does not. We have a small war going on inside ourselves between the factions of staying the same and playing it safe and the part of us that wants something new and different … aka not as safe. Below are 3 ways to work with your own ambivalence and get those changes to take hold for good.

As you consider what you would like to change in your life, pay attention to what you do not like, what you want to be different, allow yourself time to reflect and feel into the changes, then take informed and inspired action. Read on to work on finding the next right step for you.

Stage 1:

When we consider making changes it is important to think about what we do not like, however not dwell here. This stage is just about getting clear about what we do want. This stages sets the scene for us to find what we do want by examining what we do not want. When we are in this stage we often do not feel comfortable, we may feel like we are the victim, that we are on the wrong path, or just bored and tired of the same ol’ same old thing. This stage is an opportunity to decide. It is the point that we begin to see what is not working. 

It is here that we might find it is time to stop drinking/using substances or other unhealthy coping skill because we feel so awful after a night or two of our use. It is here that we might feel uncomfortable thinking, talking, acting like our “old” self because we have new knowledge, insight, or awareness. It is here that we realize that working out was giving us more than just weight loss because we missed the emotional high by missing our movement practice this morning. 

This video explains how to work with ambivalence using the Trans-theoretical Model of Change and stages of change.

Action point for this stage – Get clear on what you do not like. Reflect on why you do not like it – not to judge and keep yourself down, but to objectively determine what is not working for you. You might see that your behavior is not the kind of person you want to be any more. I see this a lot with people who used to use racist or sexist jokes without realizing the impact. Now they know the impact and do not want to be that kind of person any more, but are working to figure out how to engage people with different humor. From this point of knowing what we do not want we can begin to decide what we do want. 

Stage 2:

Now that you have a clear picture about what you do not want any longer, it is time to vision what you do want. This is a very important stage. It is here that you actually make things happen. So many people want to brush past this stage in effort of action, because action feels better, yet action too quickly can create more work in the end. In this stage spend some time developing what you do want. 

As you get clear on what you do not want – usually does not take us too long to do – we want to get very clear on what we do want. Why do we want to quit using substances? What is the benefit of a new eating plan? Why behave differently? As you vision your new life options, it is important to feel how you will feel when you get the new life you want. In this stage, do not worry about how you will get it. Just feel how good it will feel when you are successful. Drink in the sweet feelings of your goals, successes, and dreams. 

Many people feel this is so whoo – whoo, but here is what is behind it. Science. We are chemical (hormones / neurotransmitters), electrical (heart rate, facia, brain, neuron communications) , vibrational beings (atoms and molecular structure). Every thought, emotion, and action we have creates a change in those 3 things. As those changes take place – yes through your thinking and feeling and eventually doing – you are changing the way your cells communicate with each other. Our cells use proteins to adapt to the environment around us and are always changing. As these proteins shift and change we have a different experience. Experiences change our brain structures and impact other physical structures like organs, tissues, and internal communication patterns. These changes create our internal environment. This can be helpful and supportive or hostile and forbidding. 

For example as you consider a stressful event your inflammation rate rises, your breathing may shift into more upper lobe exposure, less deep breathing, and your heart rate will then quicken. This change in what is known as your heart rate variability (HRV) is tied to your nervous system. 

As your HRV quickens, your sympathetic nervous system revs up, getting ready for a fight, to flee, or go into hypo arousal and keep you alive. All this, just while you think about that fight with your partner, that near miss car accident, the trauma you lived through as a kid, or your big work project. These thoughts are impacting how your body responds. This is not just about the way you think. It is also about the way you feel, as your emotions and actions also create changes in the physical body. It does not matter where you enter the square, everything is always impacting everything. We are holistic systems, not linear cause and effect systems. 

Overlapping Psychological and Locomotor Development
This is a model of the holistic nature of our experiences I created for a presentation I gave on the overlapping nature of our psychological and physical systems.

Whether is psychological or physical they impact each other. It does not matter where we start the process – in our minds or in our bodies – we cannot pull apart the intersecting experience. The heart rate variability is the link between the mental and physical world. we can control it to change our perception of our experiences. (Reuille-Dupont, 2018)

Now that you have a better understanding of why thinking and feeling matter to the physical structure of you, it is time to make action happen. 

Action Step for This Stage: Create a vision board, write a story about the new you/life/dream as though it has already happened, and mediate, mediate, mediate. Mediation shifts our brain waves and allows us to be more receptive to solutions and next steps we need to take. We have to let go of our own thinking and doing around the change before we can get really clear about what we need to do next. Mediation clears that space for us in as little as 5, 10, 15 minutes a day. Do not skip this activity. Read more on the importance of reflective time and accomplishing goals.

Stage 3:

Hopefully, you have spent some time sitting with what you do not like, then working on what you do want. Now it is time to act. It is important to take INFORMED action. This is something I see go sideways in lots of folks, myself included – they get antsy for action and impulsively move instead of be deliberate about the next steps. This means they often miss the most simple option and skip around … leading to longer accomplishment timing. 

Ambivalence in change is uncomfortable. It is hard to sit with. There is a part of you so sure of the changes you want to make, yet there is also a part of you so scared about the changes you are about to make. There is part of you that can see clearly how much better the new way will be, and there is a part of you sad to let the old way go. As we honor both of those spaces we want to make sure we allow both to be true. This helps settle our discomfort. Once we can process our struggle we are often ready for action.

For example, the change may be quit using substances, yet your culture is full of people using your substance of choice. It may not be easy to leave them all behind today or even completely quit your substance today (sometimes this is even dangerous), but it might be doable to find a 12-step group, reach out to a sober friend, see your therapist or get one, get to the hospital, or buy a book/find an online community to help you stick to your goal of being sober (or more sober) today. We are just looking for the next step right now. Once that one is taken, we can take the next one, and the next, and next until you have multiple days, months, years sober from that substance. 

Stage 3 Action Step: Since you have already set up so much and gotten so ready by creating a vision for your future self, feeling your success and accomplishment as though it has already happened, and mediated to get clear about what you next step needs to be … just take that step. Just the next one to be most effective. It does not have be big, does not have to accomplish the end goal completely yet, you are in process, and it does not have to be overwhelming. It just has to be the next right step for this moment. The one we are in, not the one you wish you were in, want to be in, or would rather be in. Just the one you are really in. Informed action makes each moment easier and they build upon each other, little by little, like building blocks building the tower … one at a time, step by step.