It is October 1, 2022, as I sit at my desk clacking away at the keyboard. The weather is starting to turn as the warm, breezy nights of summer have fully given way to the misty, chilled evenings of the Pacific Northwest that I have come to love. The fog over our lush valley settles in at nightfall and fails to lift until late morning now; a true indication of the changing season. Leaves are falling from my cherry tree and pumpkin patches are opening their gates to the onslaught of folks ready to embrace the orange-hued days of autumn.
Like many, I recognize the changing of the seasons to represent life in its cyclical form. A reminder of the stages of life in a conveniently obvious package that is delivered to our doorsteps every few months. Birth, life, death, rebirth. Repeat. Like clockwork, (oh, but we are working on that aren’t we climate change?!) we witness the cycle of life and death in real-time.
Some of us are acutely attuned to this seasonal display and bask in the wonder of nature’s powerful abilities. Others, are not as aware of the deeper meaning they are subconsciously absorbing as they watch leaves change from green to yellow to orange to red. But, make no mistake, the message is clear – you’re born, you live, you die. Yikes.
No wonder seasonal changes often lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and stress. Many people are quite unaware that the simple reminder of death looming over your head everywhere you look for the next few months is a powerful motivator. What will it motivate you to do?
HOW ARE YOU FEELING?
Are you the type of person that stands in a 30-minute line for a pumpkin spice latte while tossing your scarf over your shoulder even though it is still 70 degrees out? Are you tapping your foot outside of the newest Spirit Halloween store to pop up in the abandoned Toys R Us so you can binge-shop for holiday decor? Are you giddy with anticipation as Costco puts out Christmas trees in August and just live for knowing that cold days and cozy sweaters are right around the corner? Good for you! I never judge and I would never begrudge anyone the simple things that bring them joy. I get it. If they made Pumpkin Spice Crest Toothpaste, I would buy it.
But even as much as I enjoy how fall represents change, like the start of a new school year, I also know that the beginning of one thing is due to the death of another. And that can make me sad. Or anxious. Even a little depressed.
Recently, I watched my sweet child skip bravely off to first grade. Her excitement toward life, her cheerful love for adventure and the fact that she comes home every day with new perspectives and knowledge fills me with delight. Possibilities abound! But it also serves to remind me that time is fleeting and my darling one takes a step further from the innocence of childhood every single day. So, yeah, I can get a little depressed in the fall.
GUESS WHAT COMES NEXT
Even with my happy awareness of the autumnal transformation and all the beauty and joys it delivers, I am also aware that, to be trite, WINTER IS COMING. Cool fall days will turn to long, cold, dark months. Enthusiasm from holiday vacations will wane, we run out of steam, we slide into old patterns in a new year of failed resolutions. And it seems to drag on and on.
With that transition will come the onslaught of therapy memes taking humorous jabs at the deluge of new clients seeking relief from seasonal depression. As a therapist, I feel frustration at the shaky summer months when attendance was down, and I had serious doubts I could pay my bills. But as a patient, I fully understand the idea of ‘taking a break’ from therapy in the summer months. I mean, who wants to go talk about feelings when it is sunny and warm, and I feel fantastic about myself when I am splashing by the riverbank?!
However, when the weather turns, people start to come back to therapy in droves as they hunker down in their homes preparing to wait out Jack Frost. Winter hammers them, giving them too much down-time to think about their problems with no summery distractions to soften the blow. And the lack of sunshine and vitamin D leads to a decrease in serotonin production, resulting in depressed mood.
I am all too familiar with seasonal depression and know the pain deeply. But as a therapist, and a business owner trying to make a profit, this time of year is the busiest for me and I gird my loins while I wait for those who are feeling desperate for support to practically knock the door down seeking help.
TRAIN IN THE OFF-SEASON
I’ve always been a sports fan. I was once, long ago, an athlete myself and I know from experience that the time you put in during practice is where the skills are built. Games are just the place where you get to show off! The thrill of victory is oh-so-much sweeter when you know that you worked your ass off to earn that V. Anything can happen in a game, so practice becomes the place where you hone your skills until they are so razor sharp and reflexive, there is nothing that can arise during competition that you don’t feel ready for. The buzzer shots, the clutch hit, the moon pass and diving catch, those are not luck. No way. Those are hours upon hours of dedication and effort creating skills that become deeply etched into the mind and body of an athlete, making it seem like innate talent. Of course most great athletes have natural born ability, but to become elite, they practice more than mere humans like myself could imagine. And any one of those top-tier athletes will tell you that, yes, while practice makes perfect, even more important is training in the off-season. The effort they put in during the down times, when it is not even expected of them, that is where the magic happens.
So, what did you do this ‘off-season’? Have you been practicing your craft? Honing your skills? Like the tale of the grasshopper and the ant, did you while away the lovely summer days with no regard to what is lurking up ahead or did you get to work preparing yourself for the struggles that may come?
These questions are not intended to distribute guilt. They are a reminder that there is an elite athlete in all of us. But while Tiger hits 10,000 chip shots to become the best, mere mortals like us improve and grow by dedicating time getting to understand ourselves through therapy. Then, when faced with challenges, we don’t feel caught off guard.
When you can fully comprehend your own motivations, choices and behaviors, you give yourself a feeling of competence and control. From my own memory, I can tell you it feels like stepping to the plate in the bottom of the 9th knowing you need a hit and being completely confident that you will succeed. Put in the hard work in the off-season so that at game time, you make the clutch play.
I am no longer blindsided by depression or anxiety. I am aware of triggers (people, places, things, SEASONS) that set off concerning moods and thinking patterns. Like an expert in my craft, I have dedicated time and effort to understand myself and address my weaknesses. I no longer feel the need to white-knuckle my way through a bout of depression because I worked so hard to develop the skills to deal with it when it arises. I train in the off-season so I feel like a pro come gametime.
Going to therapy is not about FIXING your problems. That is an impossible task! Therapy is about learning to cope with problems as they arise. Because face it, there will always be another problem; another situation to work through, another problematic relationship, another feeling of overwhelm or stress. Life is cyclical and ever-changing. There will always come another season – and each new season requires adjustments.
Did you prepare and practice so that you are ready for the big game? How are you going to fare as the seasons change?