2020 has been quite a year so far and my optimism of one year ago seems very far away. At this time last year, I accepted a job and purchased a house just 30 miles south of my home town. Filled with excitement about reconnecting with family and friends, I carefully planned my return home. Things didn’t exactly go as planned though, as my nephew and I headed straight into a blizzard just hours after starting the journey home. To make matters even worse, my precious dog of ten years became gravely ill on the last stretch of the trip. By the time I finally arrived, things seemed very dark.
In an attempt to avoid feelings of grief and sadness, I immersed myself in my new job and spent time carefully decorating my new home. I assumed things would get better with spring arriving. But in March, I was suddenly furloughed to part time as the pandemic swept the country. I struggled to attempt to adjust to working at home online and spending less time with family and friends. Those 30 miles suddenly seemed like a million, as loneliness set in.
Learning to Slow Down
My biggest challenge throughout it all was learning to be still. I couldn’t help but notice how difficult it was for me to just be. I’m somewhat of an introvert and have been on my own for years now. But I started to feel restless and irritated. The longer the quarantine lasted, the more frustrated I became. ‘I need to learn to be still,’ I told myself. As the summer months approached I turned to nature for help and accepted the challenge of slowing down and reflecting on all that had happened in the last 6 months. I began to feel less irritable, as I increased the amount of time I spent hiking, walking and working in the garden. ‘I’ve got this,’ I thought, as I adjusted to the slower pace.
Then fall approached and the number of people contracting COVID started to grow. As the days became shorter I again noticed the restlessness. ‘What am I going to do in the darkness,’ I wondered? I stocked up on art and crafts supplies and tried to imagine spending dark evenings alone. I noticed the complaints on social media as the end of daylight’s saving approached, and I knew I was not the only one dreading the long dark winter. It was difficult enough to learn to let go of the intoxication of movement and adrenaline and sit still in the light. But now, we were all going to have to learn to sit still in the darkness.
How Darkness Can Affect Our Mood
What makes it so difficult to embrace darkness? Darkness actually has an affect on both our bodies and our mood and can lead to mental health issues including SAD. Common symptoms of SAD include agitation, changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness and guilt, insomnia, low energy, loss of interest in activities, and thoughts of death or suicide. A change in sunlight patterns disrupts the body’s internal clock, reducing serotonin levels and triggering symptoms of depression. Less sunlight also affects the body’s production of melatonin which impacts mood and sleep patterns. A study done in 2015 in Sweden found that people are more likely to suffer from insomnia and depression during winter months. The scientists posit that this outcome stems from Sweden’s relatively limited exposure to natural light.
But darkness can also be healing. Experts suggest that submersion in darkness produces imagery that originates from the mind. This imagery includes geometric patterns, tunnels, buildings, and symbols. Psychologists attribute this stream of consciousness to the near constant influx of visual stimuli that we experience during our lives and suggest that its the subconscious mind emptying out. According to research conducted by the company RescueTime, the average person spends about 3.5 hours a day on their smartphones. This increases the amount of visual stimuli that needs to be processed. Sensory deprivation can allow us to rest from too much stimuli and give our brains a break. Some of the benefits of spending time in darkness include enhanced creativity, better concentration, faster reaction times, and reduced stress.
How and Why We Should Embrace the Darkness
Chronic rushing through a never ending to-do list feeds anxiety and heightens stress levels. Stress increases our adrenaline, causing us to get hooked on the stimulation of activity. Our bodies then become addicted to rushing and our minds switch to autopilot with everything that needs to get accomplished quickly. This causes us to start rushing even when it is not necessary, or multitasking ourselves into ineffectiveness. When things are not going well, we may actually seek out the adrenaline rush that rushing provides to help us manage feelings of grief, sadness or depression. In a sense, it becomes a vicious cycle that can only be stopped by slowing down.
It may be time to learn to embrace the darkness, both literally and figuratively. Winter naturally forces us to slow down and provides a great opportunity to meditate and rest. Quarantine likewise provides the same opportunity. Although it may not be dark outside, depending on where you live, it still provides the opportunity to slow down and examine what may need to change in your life. And slowing down may also be the best way to manage difficult times. So whether it is the physical darkness that is affecting your mood, or other circumstances, here are some ways to embrace the darkness.
5 Ways to Embrace the Darkness
- Get up early and greet the sunrise. Although it may be tempting to stay in bed on cold, dark mornings, science suggests that getting up to watch the sunrise can help stave off depression.
- Add light to your indoor space. Light candles, put a fire in the fireplace, or plug in some Christmas lights to create a feeling of warmth.
- Soothe yourself with music.
- Connect with others whether that be in person or online.
- Exercise. It may be more difficult to get motivated to spend time exercising outdoors, but a brisk cold walk can actually do wonders for our mood.