The last kiss of Summer is upon us, and the Autumn Equinox is here. The days are shorter, the nights becoming longer. We are shifting out of the summer yang energy (vibrant, sunshine, upward, male energy) and towards the yin energy (restful, water, receptive, female energy) that begins with Autumn. I’m taking my cues from Mother Nature that it is time to slow down a bit, and begin to turn some of my energy inward.
Equinoxes are unique events that happen twice a year; once in the spring, and once in the fall. The equinox occurs when the Northern and Southern hemispheres receive the sun’s rays about equally, and the daylight and nighttime hours are approximately the same. One really remarkable thing about equinoxes is that they are experienced by every person, everywhere in the world, at the same moment (although the actual “clock time” will depend on what time zone you live in).
The term equinox comes from the Latin word aequinoctium (aequi-, meaning “equal,” and nocti-, meaning “night.”). The equinox represents balance in nature: opposites like night and day, light and darkness, or yin and yang.
During the equinox we have the opportunity to find that balance within ourselves. This is one of those things that sounds simple, but requires a little effort. Balance is not a state we can stay in constantly. Most of us do best with mono-tasking, which means it is easy to get off- kilter because we have been spending our energy, time, or attention on one thing, and maybe neglecting other things. This is a time to evaluate where we are at and how we have been spending our energy, and re- calibrating. Human beings are complex. We are not all light, nor are we all darkness. We have both inside of us. Think of it this way: even when we stand in the light, we cast a shadow.
Don’t be afraid of the shadows
We shouldn’t be afraid of our shadow side- and yes, we all have one. What is a shadow side? It is the inner part of us that is the least known to our conscious minds. It could be the dark parts inside of us, or it could be vulnerability, fears, grief, and hidden hopes. Marie-Louise von Franz (a renowned Jungian psychologist and scholar) wrote:
“Whether the shadow becomes our friend or enemy depends largely upon ourselves… The shadow is not necessarily always an opponent. In fact, [it] is exactly like any human being with whom one has to get along, sometimes by giving in, sometimes by resisting, sometimes by giving love—whatever the situation requires. The shadow becomes hostile only when [it] is ignored or misunderstood.” (quote from “The Realization of the Shadow.”)
The fall equinox is meant for us to give attention to our shadow side, and to seek to understand what it needs. Remember that the fruits we are harvesting now had to be planted as seeds, in darkness in order to grow. Before we can experience “en-light-enment” we have to be willing to experience our own darkness. The key is to let gratitude accompany us along the whole process, so that all the lessons we learn in the darkness come with us to the harvest. Then, we let go of everything else (i.e pain, fear, grief).
Autumn Equinox traditions
Historically, the autumn equinox was a celebration of gratitude for a bountiful harvest, known as Mabon. My Celtic ancestors would have celebrated collecting a plentiful harvest, collecting seeds for the next growing season, expressing gratitude for the earth, sharing their abundance, and preparing their homes and themselves for the winter ahead.
Today, you may want to celebrate in ways that are similar and also reflect modern life. Ideas for personal/ inner observance of the transition to Fall include:
- Finishing projects you began earlier in the year
- Clean house and donate items
- Preserving food (canning fruit and veggies, making jam, salsa, and applesauce, drying fruits, collecting nuts and seeds, etc.)
- Reflecting on the fruits of your labors so far this year (What have you been cultivating?)
- Letting go of the things that no longer serve you
- Processing grief
- Create your own mental health toolkit
- Expressing gratitude to the earth and to the people that have supported you
- Meditating on the balance of yin and yang energies
- Start a gratitude list
- Go on a hike or walk in nature
- Arrange a cornucopia
- Donate to a local food pantry or shelter
There are also so many fun activities that you could do to celebrate the autumn equinox with friends and family:
- Making leaf crowns
- Visit an orchard and pick apples
- Drink spiced cider or wassail
- Doing crayon rubbings with different kinds of leaves
- Make an autumn tablescape with small pumpkins, gourds, leaves, and walnuts or acorns. Add a couple of candles.
- Bake bread
- Host a gathering with a caramel apple bar (provide apples on sticks, caramel sauce, and all the toppings for people to choose from).
- Have a bonfire
- Dip colored leaves in beeswax and make a garland for your home
- Go on a lantern walk
- Make flower/ leaf/ rock/ stick mandalas
Here is a script for a guided meditation you can practice around the autumn equinox, and an optional release ritual at the end.
Autumn Equinox Meditation and Release Ritual
Find a comfortable seated position. Begin to focus on your inhales and your exhales. Let your eyes gently close if you like. Just sit and breathe for a few minutes, mentally following the path the air takes as it enters and exits your lungs. As thoughts enter your mind, acknowledge them, and then let them pass by without judgment or dwelling on them. Allow your body to relax.
Imagine all of the plants and abundance that the summer months have brought. Picture ripe fruits and vegetables being harvested from an abundant garden. See vibrant flowers, winding vines, and fragrant herbs ready to be cut and dried. Imagine the sun’s energy being absorbed into these powerful plants and transformed so that they can grow and offer us oxygen, nutrients, and beauty. Let your mind be fully present in the conditions of summer. How does it look? Feel? Smell? What thoughts come to mind?
Now imagine the lengthening of shadows, and the earlier onset of the sunset and night time. Notice the air becoming crisper and the leaves’ transition to brilliant reds, oranges, and golds. Mentally welcome autumn as if it was a “second spring, when every leaf is a flower”. See the leaves falling from the trees and other plant life changing. Know that this is a necessary and beautiful part of life and the cycles of the seasons. Smell the sweet and spicy aroma of fallen leaves decomposing into beautiful rich soil. Bid farewell to the summer light and surroundings. Inhale the new light of autumn. As you observe the leaves falling from the trees, bring to mind something that you have been grieving, or that you have been holding on to- but that no longer serves you or supports your highest intentions.
If you are ready to release that thing from your life, whether it is your inner negative self talk, a habit you’d like to be rid of, resentment, or unhealthy co-dependency, imagine that thing as a crumpled brown leaf, trembling in the wind, nearly ready to be separated from your tree. If it feels right, let yourself feel gratitude for the things you have learned and the ways you have grown because of that thing. See that brown leaf flutter to the ground, and then be lifted up in the breeze to join dozens of other swirling leaves that have been released from their trees. All of these leaves will break down over the next seasons and become rich, fertile compost for the new growth in the spring.
Return your focus to your breath. In and out, in and out. Now breathe in, to a slow count of four. One count for each season. Hold the breath in for another count of four. Let the breath out evenly to a count of four, and finally, hold the breath out for another count of four. Repeat this breath three more times. Stretch your arms and open your eyes, and mentally welcome Autumn.
***Optional release ritual:
Instead of imagining the thing you’d like to release as a leaf, you can collect a leaf of your choice ahead of time, and take a moment during the meditation to write a word or short phrase on the leaf with a pen or marker. Then, walk somewhere that you would like to release your leaf- either to the wind, into a stream or lake, off a footbridge, etc. Let your leaf go. Finish with the breath work.
This release ritual could alternatively be done by writing your word onto a stick and tossing it into an autumn bonfire.
We’re on the other side of Labor Day, and that means it is the unofficial beginning of Autumn. Even though Autumn is my absolute favorite season, I have mixed feelings (ok, read: actual dread) about the season that follows… Alright, I don’t hate Winter, but historically, it has been a struggle for me. I have chronic pain that is worsened by the cold, but it’s also the shortened daylight hours, feeling cooped up indoors, the poor driving conditions… you get the point. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, or seasonal depression, wintertime blues, etc.) is a real thing for me. I want to share one of my best tips for getting through the cold weather doldrums ahead: the personal mental health toolkit.
Those wintertime blues…
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that recurs around the same time every year, and lasts for a few months. Most people feel its effects beginning in late fall and lasting through the winter. A few people actually experience it the opposite way… starting in spring and lasting through the summer. Typical depression symptoms are common for both (hopelessness, low energy, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, sleep problems, change in appetite and/or weight, frequently thinking about death/ suicide, and problems with concentration). Read more about SAD symptoms here.
SAD seems to be connected to dropping levels of serotonin ( the “happy hormone”) and melatonin (the “sleep hormone”). The amount of natural light you are exposed to affects both of these hormones. So less daylight = less serotonin and melatonin = mood and sleep problems. To make matters worse, these effects are stronger the further away from the equator you live. This is because there are fewer hours of sunlight the closer to the poles you are (i.e. SAD is more prevalent in folks who live above the 35th parallel).
You’re not in this alone
I hope you’re still with me, because my point isn’t just to share statistics about seasonal depression. My point is that if you know that you are prone to seasonal mood changes -even if you don’t think you quite hit SAD levels of depression- you can make a plan right now to support your mental health. Let’s call it your mental health toolkit, for any time you feel yourself getting depressed, anxious, or just moody.
Now, here’s the part where I tell you that I’m not a doctor, and I can’t give you medical advice. So use your own best judgement. Personally, I have talked to my doctor about this. He is aware of my history, and every year in about November, he writes me a prescription for an antidepressant that I can keep in my purse and fill at any time if I feel like I should. It’s a good option for me, since I am fairly mindful about my mental state. I recommend good communication with your own doctor as part of your mental health toolkit.
Your mental health toolkit awaits
There are a ton of research- backed treatments and practices that you can do to minimize the wintertime blues. Proven, official treatments for SAD that might belong on your list include:
- Light Therapy (you can buy special LED lights for this exact purpose, google “light therapy for SAD”)
- CBT (counseling/ therapy),
- Stress- relief strategies (including yoga, meditation, music and art therapy),
- Time outdoors and exercise.
But these are just a starting place- there are a ton of other options. YOU know best what kinds of things help you to feel better when you’re experiencing a “low”.
Your mental health toolkit is basically a list of options for you to run through when you don’t have the energy or willpower to think of how to pull yourself away from your darkness.
When I start feeling depressed, it feels like I am approaching a huge, dark pit in the ground, and if I get too close, I will fall in. The closer I get to my “deep, dark hole”, the harder it is to pull myself away and turn my mood around. I don’t have the energy or motivation to research what to do to feel better. But I can open up my notebook to where I have written out my checklist of things to do to feel better, and I can start doing things on the list without expending a ton of energy.
I will share some of the things I have included on my list. My toolkit includes things like:
- Meditation routine (I shoot for a minimum of 10 minutes a day. If you don’t know where to start, may I recommend trying a progressive body scan, blog post with instructions linked.)
- Nutrition choices (This could be cutting something out, like sugar or dairy, or adding something in, like trying to get an extra serving of veggies or fruit. It could also be allowing yourself to mindfully enjoy a special treat.)
- Sleep choices (Either going to bed or getting up at specific times. Taking a nap, etc.)
- Hydration (A good rule of thumb is your weight in pounds divided by 2 = ounces of water you should drink every day.)
- Gratitude practice (I have a designated journal that I write a minimum of one sentence of gratitude in each day.)
- Continuing education (Find something you want to immerse yourself in, and learn more about it. Last winter I finished classes for a certification I was working on, and then I signed up for a labyrinth drawing class. Just find something that seems interesting, and maybe sign up for it ahead of time.)
- Music (I have a couple playlists of music that make me feel good- some are peppy and upbeat, and others are mellow, but feel- good songs. I also took up playing the ukulele a few years ago, and there are a ton of free tutorials, printable music, etc. out there. It’s a huge return on investment in terms of money and time invested to actual playing of songs and enjoyment in a relatively short period.)
- Exercise (This can be as simple as a daily walk. Ok, true story- last winter, I walked my son to school almost every morning, all winter long. Even when it was below freezing, we bundled up and walked, as long as it wasn’t icy or stormy. Interestingly, last winter was the first winter in almost 20 years where I felt like my mental health was reasonably good all winter long. That’s huge for me. :))
- Affirmations (Write out a list of a few positive affirmations, and for bonus points, pair them with tapping/ EFT to supercharge them. Here’s a classic: “I deeply and completely accept myself”.)
- Journaling (This can be anything that works for you, either bullet journaling, blogging, journaling prompts, a plain notebook where you record everything you did that day, write in letter format, or just do a brain dump, profanity and all. Whatever does it for you, seriously.)
- Nature therapy (Check out my social media posts on Shinrin Yoku, or Forest Bathing, to see all the amazing ways that nature boosts your physical and mental health. Consider investing in good quality clothing and gear that will keep you warm outdoors, and get outside.)
- Purposeful social connection (This could be forcing yourself to get out the door and go to that GNO, going out to lunch with a friend, or calling your sister/ friend/ mom/ SO on the phone for a few minutes.)
- Vitamins and Supplements (I may do a separate post about this, but I do take at minimum a women’s Multivitamin, Magnesium, Omega-3 Fish Oil, and some other herbal supplements shown to positively affect mood and energy. You’ll have to do your own research about what you feel is right for you.)
- Reading comics that make me laugh (My current favorite is Strange Planet by Nathan Pyle, but my son loves Calvin and Hobbes. Try creating a folder on your phone with your favorite comic strips, memes, or TikTok videos. Again, whatever works for you.)
Your personal resource
I don’t do everything on my list everyday. It is a kit filled with options that I turn to when I need it. Some of the options are intended as prevention, and others are meant to be utilized once I am already feeling down. My toolkit is geared around depression (and it’s written in my notebook under the heading “Anti- Depression Toolkit”). This is totally personal preference. Your toolkit might be geared around anxiety, or intrusive thoughts. Just try to notice now if there is anything that helps you feel better, even if it’s only a tiny bit, and put it on the list. Sometimes just knowing that you did something good for yourself, like drinking a glass of water instead of a soda, is enough to pull you out of a spiral.
Hot tip: Share your list with a trusted person who can remind you to use your toolkit when you’re struggling. Even if your mood is generally pretty stable throughout the year, consider taking 5 minutes to jot down a short list of mood-lifters or things that make you happy.
If it helps, you can download a free template for coming up with your own Mental Health Toolkit- link below. No strings attached. Just click and the download will start.
Personal Mental Health Toolkit Template
I wish you the best as we head toward Fall and Winter, and I hope you find creating your own Mental Health Toolkit helpful.