January need not be so blue

We’ve all been through some tough times recently. Most people are under significant stress and have been throughout the pandemic and the ensuing financial and energy crises. Stress and mental health issues are reported to be at an all-time high. And it’s January, with its cold weather and dark, gloomy days. It would be easy to slide into feeling low and grumpy just now. But don’t. Or, at least, really try not to.

It’s so important to practice good self-care and to be kind to ourselves, as well as being kind to others. Knowing what triggers an upset and managing those triggers can help you stay in control of your mood and your health.

For instance, if getting up early on those dark mornings really gets to you, invest in a wake-up light. Also known as sunrise alarms, these lights wake you up with light that gradually brightens, rather than the loud jarring noises typically used by traditional alarms. Some wake-up lights have options to add natural sounds or your favourite radio station to the change in light.

Becase it simulates the sunrise with a gradual increase in brightness, this type of alarm wakes you up gently. The wake-up light’s sunrise settings stimulate your vision, triggering the release of the hormone cortisol, which we all need to help us to wake up.

So, how do you take care of yourself?

Do you take time out to meditate?

Even just practicing slow breathing for 5 minutes can really help you re-centre. It’s a good idea to do this in the morning and in the evenings before bed. You don’t need anything fancy, just a nice quiet space where you won’t be disturbed.

Tip: if you find that on closing your eyes, your mind still continues to wander, don’t just give up. This is what the mind does. Just gently refocus on your breathing. Instead of keeping your eyes closed, you could focus with a soft gaze on a candle flame or a favourite crystal.

How often do you get out in nature?

Yes, we know it’s winter here in the northern hemisphere. But just a short walk in fresh air or spending a few minutes in your garden listening to birdsong and the sounds of nature will offer some moments of calm, as well giving your eyes a screen break.

Tip: leave your phone behind for these few minutes. Stay present to the sounds around you. Pause and breathe.

Do you journal?

With our busy lives, we have so much information in our heads – tasks, timetables to follow, the latest news. Often we find ourselves processing this ’stuff’ after we go to bed. A good way to get clear and avoid being overwhelmed by it all is to take time at the end of the day to write it all out. Get it all out of your head and on to paper before you go to bed. Doing this will help clear your head and bring a sense of calm. How often have you woken up at 3 or 4am remembering that you forgot to do something? This exercise will help stop that happening.

Tip: leave the journal outside of your bedroom. Once all that stuff is out of your head, leave it out. Don’t be tempted to bring the journal into the bedroom just to check that you haven’t forgotten anything.

What time do you watch the news?

Avoid watching the news late at night. Many people find that they tend to ‘carry’ the news to bed with them if they watch news programs just before bed, essentially taking stress and anxiety to bed with them. This stress and anxiety trigger the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, which will end up keeping you awake.

The same goes for social media too. So often just a quick glance at a social media channel can be a stress trigger. Just a badly worded tweet can cause a surge of stress, sadness or anger, which can lead to a sleepless night. Also, the blue light from your device screen will increase the release of cortisol while inhibiting the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin. This is why so many people find it difficult to drop off to sleep after an evening staring at screens.

Tip: set a daily alarm that reminds you to turn off your devices 2 to 3 hours before bedtime.

That stress response

The stress response is normal and natural. Sometimes it’s needed in life, for instance when we’re working to deliver a project to a tight deadline or rushing to catch that flight. But when the stress response state is sustained over a long period of time, that excited, revved up style of functioning becomes the ‘normal’ for the body, leading to the risk of adrenal exhaustion and burnout.

The experience of letting go is good for us. The mind and body need a chance to recalibrate and return to a calmer, relaxed state.

Cortisol, melatonin and the sleep-wake cycle

Cortisol, known as a stress hormone, is produced by your adrenal glands. It helps to regulate your metabolism and reduce inflammation. When cortisol is released, it raises your blood sugar levels and blood pressure in preparation for physical activity. As part of your circadian rhythm, there’s usually a cortisol spike in the early hours of the morning that helps you to wake up feeling refreshed. As the day progresses, your cortisol levels will gradually diminish as melatonin, the sleep hormone, is released in the hours before you go to bed.

Melatonin is secreted by your pineal gland and works with cortisol. When your optic nerves detect natural light diminishing, they’ll send a message to your hypothalamus, which will then trigger the release of melatonin to help you relax and feel drowsy in preparation for sleep. Generally, as melatonin levels increase, cortisol levels decrease and vice-versa.

Esential oils can help

Essential oils are a great tool to have in your arsenal of wellbeing tools. Keep your Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis) or Grapefruit (Citrus paradisii) oils to hand in January. Just a couple of inhalations of either of these cheery essences direct from the bottle will help disperse a grumpy mood. If you have a cottton ball or pad to hand, pop a one or two drops of either on to it and leave it on your work desk. The citrus essences help refresh our minds and uplift our moods. And, at work they’ll help increase productivity too.

Bed time sleep blend

To help calm your mind as help you fall asleep more easity, make up the following blend of essential oils in a small (10 ml) bottle with a dropper (available from Materia Aromatica or Neal’s Yard Remedies. Add 6 to 10 drops of the blend to your diffuser (depending on the size of your room). Or add 6 drops of the blend to a very warm bath, making sure that you stir the water vigorously to disperse the oils.

6 drops of Bergamot (Citrus aurantium, ssp bergamia)
5 drops of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
4 drops of Sandalwood (Santalum austrocaledonicum)
5 drops of Mandarin (Citrus reticulata)
4 drops of Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
3 drop of Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides)

This is also a lovely blend to use while meditating or journalling.

Get up and go blend

For an energy boost on those darker mornings try the following blend in your diffuser:

4 drops of Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)
2 drops of Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis, ct cineole)
1 drop of Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

All in all, these tips and aromatherapy blends will help you to create more balance in your life and can help you to start to take the time to practice self-care. The key thing is that you have to choose to take that time for yourself. Using essential oils can enhance your self-care routine. They’ll instil a sense of peace and relaxation as you honour your needs, which in turn, will be so good for you physically, mentally and emotionally.

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