December is known as a dangerous month. Around the holidays, sometimes just dealing with family is enough to send a person over the edge. We’ve also become aware that folks who are alone, who have suffered losses, who are struggling are at risk of suicide during the holidays. That feeling of loss and separation set against the backdrop of celebration and family time can be insurmountable. Now there are public service announcements, suicide prevention lines, and community events set up to prevent the worst of the December damage.
January is known as a dark winter month. I know I put in extra effort to spend time with family and friends in the month of January to combat the winter blues and the impact of those holiday bills rolling in. After New Year’s, we always make a point of hosting some kind of quirky, community focused party at our house. One year it was a mass Capricorn birthday party for ourselves and all our friends born under the hybrid zodiac sign. Another year it was a potluck sandwich party themed after the comic strip character Dagwood and his insane, five foot tall sandwiches.
But February — February sneaks in under my radar every year and throws me for a loop. February is still dark and cold, with teasing glimpses of the spring to come. Not enough to lift me into that flurry of spring cleaning energy, just enough so that I really remember what I’m missing. Aside from Valentine’s Day — and isn’t that fraught with enough emotional landmines?! — there’s nothing to February but cold and dark and paying off bills. Sometimes, for extra excitement, we get an unexpected house repair or medical emergency. This year we got an overdue car purchase, braces, a new job, and two family medical emergencies. And we’re only seven days in. Once you mix all of that up into one month (one week?), even good stress like a new job becomes an addition to the stress that one’s adrenal system might view as an attack.
February is especially stressful for many of us this year as we see our civil liberties attacked and our ways of life demeaned and devalued. I am concerned about the state of our environment, our educational system, our constitutional checks and balances, our standing within the global community, and our sense of connection to each other. I think many of us are struggling with how we can effect positive change in our nation and within our local communities.
I have a few go to’s that I use for stress and outright panic when I need them. One is a visual meditation aid, a simple black and white .gif that morphs from one geometric shape to another. It starts at a triangle, goes to a square, a pentagon, and so on, timed to the span of a single breath. I like the simplicity and the lack of association. It’s just geometric shapes, one unfolding into another, expanding like a flower unfurling, until it collapses in on itself and starts all over. Another is exercise. A good sweat is a good way to burn off extra adrenaline and the calories that tend to go along with stress eating. When I know I’m under stress, I also know my immune system is taking a hit, so I tend to add a multivitamin to my diet for a while to stave off any crud I might pick up.
But I’ll be honest. Those are the “fixes” that you can find in any decent healthy living article, and while they help, they are not the cure-all that they’re sometimes touted to be. Stress relief comes in many forms, and there’s no one way up that mountain. For example, yesterday I took a long walk with the dog down by the river. The fresh air and the doggie companion and the natural vista were just the thing to find my center again and gain some perspective on the state of the world. Today, I’m writing with a whiskey over ice next to me, and gasp, it’s my second one. And that’s working for me right now. I’ve also sent e-mails thanking my children’s teachers for their dedication, creativity, and time to counteract the depressing national news they received today, and that little bit of effort I made to maybe make someone’s day a little better is helping me have a better day myself. Tomorrow, I’m planning to attend a community meeting. I’ve found that turning off the news and hiding from reality just makes me more anxious, because I know it’s still out there waiting for me. So for me, staying on top of the news rather than having it hit all at once, and staying involved in activities that lead to change, help me cope with the world as it is right now. For others, unplugging is absolutely the right thing to do. Do what works for you.
A couple things to consider: Can you function the next day? Two whiskeys, yes. Three whiskeys, no. For me, at any rate. So three would cross the line from self care to self harm. Are you and yours safe while you de-stress? Obviously if you’re having a drink, don’t drive. I mean, duh. Exercising to dump adrenaline? Cool. Exercising to lose an unhealthy amount of weight? Not so much. Taking a news break for a couple days to recalibrate? Rock out with your aware self. Hiding under a rock and having a panic attack every time someone mentions world news? Time to tell your inner angry muppets to take a chill pill. Folks, you got this. Balance in everything.
We are quirky, weird, awesome, and amazing in all our individuality. And that means there’s no magic bullet solution to resolving our stress levels. In fact, our stress levels will never go away because we are engaged, active members of our families and our communities, and that means there is ALWAYS something going on that demands our energy, our hearts, and our devotion. I’ve found that what works best for me is not getting caught up in the “one right way” to fix my stress levels. What works best for me is following my weird little heart’s desires, which sometimes lead me to hosting a Dagwood sandwich party for the second time in a month and sometimes lead me to spending five days obsessively photographing winter plants and sometimes lead me to exploring the world of New England whiskey distilleries. If you’re not causing harm to yourself or others, do what you need to do to find your inner balance. February is the dark horse of dark winter months, and this year is an especially fraught time. Don’t get caught up in should do’s. Be weird, be wacky, be yourself. Do what works for you.