In these short winter days with so few hours of sunlight, there can be a tendency to slow down,, quieten, turn inwards. There are different kinds of quietness, immobility and being still. For people like me who can be too busy, too active, opening up to stillness and rest can be scary but replenishing, providing a kind of ‘reset’, leading to regeneration. We see something like this in psychotherapy too, such as in processes that Winnicott and others called regression, a return to deep inner states which need to be stayed with in order to reboot to healthier functioning. This idea is beautifully described in Katherine May’s book, Wintering.
I tend to contrast emotional spark and energy with lifelessness, numbness, or being damped down. We need energy. It is no coincidence that so many winter festivals, from Christmas, Diwali, Chanukah, are festivals of light. It is energy that differentiates being alive from being inert or dead. Sometimes it pays to be sparkier, like when running from an attacker, and at others to slow right down, such as when resting after working all night on a deadline. Personally, I often want to be calmer and more relaxed, but few of us want to be inanimate, or energy-less. It is this balance that so many of us struggle with.
When we feel flat, damped down, inhibited, depressed, numbed, weak, we literally have less energy. This shows in our metabolisms. In illness, perhaps after a virus, we often feel weak. The animal who senses there is not enough food around will conserve energy by slowing its metabolism, such as by lowering heart rate and temperature. We see this in hibernating species, in illness, and also after trauma. Hibernating animals become quiescent to see out winter, traumatised ones to see out a threat of a predator, just as bacteria and our mitochondria go still in the face of dangers. Yet we don’t really want to ‘see out’ life: we want to live full ones, with spark, zest, and energy.
I coined the metaphor of desparking to make sense of more worrying de-energised states. There are times when any of us needs to conserve energy, to set aside passion, fire, zest, excitement, hope, or spark in the interests of survival. These can be appropriate responses when afflicted by stress, trauma, hopelessness, or depression. It makes sense to be flat, depressed, and shocked if we unexpectedly face a terrible loss. Healthy people and organisms recover and reboot back to normal life relatively quickly after those states. However, we can also become stuck in such energy-less states long after it is productive, which is common after trauma.
A healthy form of immobility is different from the kind of immobility which develops from fear, threat, neglect, and defending against overwhelm. In these states we see shutdown, which is basically a response to danger, one so paralysing that instead of being able to fight, or even flee, the response available is to quieten, numb, go into a kind of hibernation. We then see shallow breathing, bodily floppiness, a lack of alertness, poor muscle tone, and a contraction away from feeling, into a numbed survival-based state.
When threat is present, we can go into survival mode, and when sympathetic nervous system firing fails, the result can be opioid-led analgesic numbing.
This is so different from what we probably hope for from ‘wintering’. Here our nervous system can relax, allowing a kind of resetting, often a healing cycle, rather similar to when one is ill and needs recovery time. Winter holidays can be like a healthy hibernation that is replenishing, a restoration of health and ease, which can then allow what I call rebooting, a moving back into life with energy. Here we can let go into what May called ‘wintering’ , or the Jungian-influenced poet Robert Bly called ‘time in the basement kitchen’. This is a kind of turning off, hibernating, and resetting, a time for being still, retreating, and replenishing.
Such healthy quieting, as Porges and others suggest, is one when we feel at ease, safe, and relaxed, and the healthy parasympathetic branch of our nervous system is firing. This allows a feeling of trust and safeness, coming with deep, relaxed breathing, healthy heart-rate variability, and a capacity to appreciate being in the moment, without too much anxiety. This healthy form of immobility is the one we want at this time of year, linked with genuine wellbeing, coming with a sense that life feels safe and good. This is where our digestion is optimal (perhaps not after a huge Christmas dinner!), our breathing deep and slow, our immune system is working well, and it is the place from which we are able to empathise with and enjoy other people.
I see people moving towards such states in therapy, but I worry about the many who experience a numbed listlessness, a lack of energy and spark, so often seen after trauma, depression and learned helplessness. I long for them to feel secure enough to unfreeze and quieten in a safe way.
In ode to the sloth, we can relish and try to cultivate the capacity for healthier inner stillness. Being slothful can be misinterpreted as being lazy, and in early Christian thought, slothfulness was considered one of the seven deadly sins, linked with indolence and idleness. We live in a culture that is disdainful of lack of effort, of doing little, of slowness. Personally, I am somewhat in awe of the sloth. Sloths are creatures with a low metabolic rate, who move gently and deliberately, who literally spend a lot of time ‘hanging’ around and sleep a lot. Their way of life is far from the manic buzz I and so many embrace in our modern world. While I would like to be more slothful, especially at this time of year, and feel a mixture of admiration for and envy of those who are, my own defences too often get in the way.
Still, I wish you dear reader and the people we care about, and also those we don’t, a healthy, idle, recuperative wintering and slothful time of hanging around. With my wishes for health, peace and ease to you, a gentle easeful reset, ready for a joyful new year RESPARK