As we enter the season when we lose the light outside, it’s essential to find ways to hold space for what generates light internally. There are those who are natural winter folks who thrive in darker nights and colder weather, but the majority of us here in Southern California seem drawn to warmer days and shorter, lighter nights; and so it’s essential to be mindful of how the loss of the light affects our outlook. As a therapist and administrator at a large children’s mental health agency in South LA, I am keenly aware of cycles and seasons; the school year, winter break, the coming of summer, and how these markers throughout the year affect our work and our mindsets.
People who have experienced traumatic events in their lives, either through their childhoods or through other means, are often challenged by this time of year. The waning light combined with the holidays can bring difficulties for many, and often times people with trauma struggle to identify the source of their suffering and lack the tools to safely navigate themselves to the other side. Developing body awareness and wisdom about our physical and energetic fields can help people feel more grounded and empowered when the darker times come. Most of us need some kind of help to learn how to do this and today there are so many modalities that can help connect us to our truest nature, our deepest purpose in life, and the reasons why we keep encountering the same barriers, over and over.
When we experience childhood trauma in our families of origin, we are changed on a cellular level. We learn to brace during everyday interactions from a very young age. That bracing has an impact on our muscular/connective tissue and even our cells, affecting every system in the body and sometimes leading to emotional, mental and physical challenges. The small and big traumas that become stuck in the body can flare up unexpectedly or predictably at a certain time of year, and there is a lot we still don’t understand about trauma. But therapists like myself can tell you that the winter is often a difficult time for people. Increased depression, anxiety, and/or pain combined with decreased immunity and overall resilience has many people bracing and waiting for the season to be over and the relief of spring.
I was talking to a yoga teacher the other day who teaches from a trauma-informed perspective who told me she doesn’t believe in recovery, she only believes in relief. I relate to that on some level. Long-term therapy with no relief seems like an exercise in futility. People do need to experience relief very quickly in their pursuit of recovery and if they don’t, it can generate another layer of hopelessness (the opposite of what you want to achieve with therapy). If I had more time to engage her in conversation, I might have told her that we really need both. Relief without recovery is liking taking medicine with no plan to resolve the underlying issue that is causing distress. In order to uplift our lives, we need to physically be able to alter ourselves when we develop maladaptive patterns. There are many strategies we can use to change our neural pathways or interrupt our tendencies towards addictive behaviors. The ways in which our bodies and minds have evolved to compensate for our pain needs to ultimately be transformed for true embodiment to be achieved. This looks different for everyone and there are many paths up the mountain. The fact that I believe in recovery and the yoga teacher believes in relief doesn’t mean that both aren’t important. We are both right. And we are all important on this road to healing and wholeness.
So many of our holiday traditions during December focus on bringing light into the darkness. We can also use this idea as a metaphor to explore the meaning of our relationship to ourselves and the landscape of our attachments. It is a time to dedicate ourselves to the processes and places that provide us the deepest meaning in our lives. Therapy is one way to engage this process, but it is often a luxury of the middle and upper classes. Anyone who has experienced adversity in any quadrant of their lives could benefit from the experience of being witnessed in an environment that provides both universal acceptance and caring feedback. And there are so many settings (many of them affordable) where this kind of healing and change can occur.
So while some people dread these shorter days and the triggers that surround the holidays, I want to offer a different perspective. As we enter into this next season, we have the opportunity to nest and turn inside, towards our inner space, towards the vast and limitless expanse that exists inside of us. Much like an astronaut launches themselves into space to explore the void of the galaxy, we have the same opportunity to be explorers of our own minds, our bodies, and our unconscious life. This is a wonderful time of year to become an explorer, a messenger for ourselves.
Developing a sense of curiosity about ourselves and the available paths towards healing can change our perspectives from constricted to expansive, from rigid to flexible, and from fight/flight to relaxation. Finding the right person to guide us on our own journey to self-discovery is essential in this process. And they should be just that, a guide. Someone with knowledge about how the body and mind interact with each other and someone who can teach you how to facilitate communication between the two. So be curious, find people who support and uplift you, and be a messenger for your own needs this holiday season. It will make you the best kind of friend to yourself that you can be.
Amber Rickert, MPH, LCSW
Lumos Transforms Facilitator
Director of Outpatient Services, Los Angeles Child Guidance