Honouring the call to hibernate in the modern world

Our winter months are often full of things to do and people to see, but taking the time to slow down and embrace this season of hibernation can be just what we need. By Suzy Reading

Are you feeling it too? The genuine urge to bunker in, a growing need for rest, a deep desire to seek comfort? Take a look at the powerful impact nature has on the plant and animal kingdom, why would humans not respond similarly to these strong environmental cues? We are not machines and as the days become shorter and the cold descends, hibernation mode is very real. While it’s a totally normal impulse, why is it so overwhelming this year and what can we do to honour the instinct without sabotaging our health? Take a pause and let’s identify the scaffolding we need in our day to weather the winter period.

What is hibernation mode?

We know nothing blooms all year, so why do we human beings expect to have the same needs, preferences and energy all year round? We are not immune to the signs and signals from our environment and our hunter gatherer ancestors would have altered their daily rhythm in response to hours of daylight and access to warmth. With the advent of artificial light and central heating, with social media showing us all the fun other people are having, we often now plough on without considering how seasonal variations impact on our daily flow. Seasonal affective disorder is commonly understood, but it can be far more subtle too – lower energy, an increased need for sleep, a desire to retreat socially, an urge to snuggle indoors and seek cosiness and warmth – this is hibernation mode, a very natural response to the winter season providing us with time and space to reflect, to restore, and to sustain ourselves when it’s tough out there.

Why is the urge so strong this year?

Perhaps this year the desire to retreat might feel more overwhelming than ever before. In the context of what we have experienced collectively over the last two years, this makes perfect sense. Hibernation mode is amplified by the fatigue we are feeling from an extended period of real worry, uncertainty and the lingering residue from lockdown life. These are wonky times and we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. Less than twelve months ago we were all in lockdown, working from home, home-schooling our children, zooming to connect, and wondering when that chapter would ever end. As life resumes a fuller expression we are faced with the enormity of what we’ve been through and we are still making peace with the real impingements that remain. Perhaps the call to bunker in is our mind and body’s way of reminding us we need to acknowledge our loss, we need time to process our feelings and we need space to heal. 

Winter gives us the dispensation to pause and it might be helpful to take a moment and examine what this year has held for you. Acknowledge the struggles, the challenges, the grief, the blessings and know that they are all valid whether they are smaller or different to other people. There is great power in using ‘and’ here – for example, we can feel sad at the thought of all those lost opportunities and we can feel grateful that we still have our jobs. Just seeing it all on paper can help us understand why we feel as we do.

The heaviness we’re experiencing might also be down to pressure to make up for lost time, especially when treasured plans were cancelled last year. As you approach the Christmas period, give yourself permission to reflect on what you and your family need this year. Dial down the noise from social media, friends and extended family, it is ok if people have a different appetite for socialising and remember there are many ways you can connect. Know that your social stamina will return and allow time for relationships and family dynamics to come back into synch – this has been such a period of upheaval. We can also think of this as an opportunity to create new rituals of connection and celebration.

How to honour the impulse to hibernate in life-giving ways 

While we might want to hide and sleep the next few months away, we know by virtue of our lockdown lessons that we need movement, daylight, variety in our downtime and social connection to feel whole and healthy. We can still honour our need for cosiness without sabotaging our health, we needn’t hermit ourselves away completely and we can find comfort in more than just chocolate and red wine. Consider how you can make your home, or just a nook, a haven of calm, using colour, texture, touch, scent and light to lift the spirits. Think about ways of connecting that allow you to work with your daily rhythms of energy. If going out after dark doesn’t appeal, now is the time for breakfast, brunch and lunch dates, taking a walk together in Nature’s beauty or you can reclaim the lost art of letter writing. If you feel you need more sleep or rest right now, give yourself grace and prioritise it. FOMO is real, the feeling that we should be achieving is real, but can we see the deep purpose of rest – soothing the nervous system after so much stress and anxiety, replenishing our energy after months of pressure-cooker life and competing demands, and space to digest our emotions. Rest might be the single most productive thing possible right now. Mantra: I am not doing nothing, I am resting. While energy might be low, we still need movement for our mood and mental health. It needn’t be vigorous or strenuous, it can be a walk around the block with a friend, or it can be lying down on the floor and taking some yoga stretches. Opt for legs up the wall for when the energy bank says there is nothing left in the tank.

The scaffolding you need in your day to see you through winter

To best weather the winter period, honouring our energy levels but not sliding into self-sabotaging behaviour, think about the habits you need
in your day to function. The shape this takes will be different from one person to the next so think about what this means for you personally.
Use the following prompts from the journal ‘And Breathe’ to gain clarity:

How many hours of sleep do I need to feel well rested?

What is my ideal bed time and rise time?

What does rest facilitate in my life and what activities do I find restorative?

What brings me energy and how can I make space for these in my life?

What do I find depleting and how can I minimise or avoid these?

Make a list of all the people on your team and what you
appreciate about them.

List a few different forms of movement you find enjoyable and
identify windows in your day when you can get out and move.

What does healthy eating look like for you at this time of year.
If you’d like to create any change, aim for small incremental change
– one meal of the day at a time, snacks or your hydration.

Write a compassionate letter to yourself. What do you want to
say to yourself and what do you need to hear?

Complete the sentence: I give myself permission to…