Mindfulness for Burnout

Taking in the good to help with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Posted Mar 06, 2019

“I’m exhausted,” Holly told me. “The weather is awful, and the daily news is frightening. I need some R & R, but I don’t have the money or the flexibility in my life to take a vacation. I’m in a depressed funk. What can I do?” she asked.

Around this time of year, many of us experience the depletion of serotonin. Our moods plummet and we become irritable and lethargic. Many years ago, when I was a young trainee in a mental health clinic, I mentioned to my supervisor that I thought one of my patients had Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). My mentor rolled her eyes with some exasperation at my youthful naivete. In a polite but measured tone of voice and a look that said, “What else is new?” she responded, “Susan, everyone in the Northeast has SAD at this time of year.”

Now, with the perspective of 30 years of clinical practice, I think that she was partially right. Many of us have it, but there are ways to manage it skillfully. While there is never one solution that works for all, I have been on the lookout for something that can help. The work of psychologist Rick Hanson has inspired me, especially his newest book, Resilient. Hanson writes eloquently on how we can develop a calm stable core that can help us weather the storms of life. Even a long, dark winter. One technique that I have found particularly effective in my clinical work is his practice of “taking in the good.” For example, when you have a moment of pleasure or gratitude, a positive connection with someone, or notice the beauty of snow on the branches of a tree, stay with it, pause, let it linger before rushing off to the next thing. Take in the positive. See if you can notice it, savor it, relish it, hold it in awareness for 5, 10, or 15 seconds. Hanson has found that doing this a few times a day can make a real difference in becoming resilient. With my patients, I have found that they can return more quickly from an upsetting or distressing event or a difficult day.

Inspired by Hanson’s research, I created this meditation for those seemingly dark, endless, frigid days of winter.

On the window sill in my kitchen, I keep an aloe vera plant for the times when I burn myself cooking (more often than I care to admit). One day, after I had applied some of the healing aloe vera gel, perhaps because I was grateful for the reduction of my pain, I got curious about the nature of this plant. This succulent embodies grit and resilience. It survives in dry soil and under difficult conditions: extreme cold, heat, and sun. And in spite of the harsh conditions, it contains a healing gel in its leaves. I liked the metaphor.

Aloe Vera Meditation

  • Sitting comfortably, take a few breaths and let yourself settle. Feel the weight of your body. Give yourself a moment to ground and to center.
  • Get an image of an aloe vera plant. (Google it if you like.) It has shallow and horizontal roots, and thick, serrated stems that branch out from a central core. The leaves contain the healing gel.
  • Reflect on how this plant can survive in an arid environment without much moisture.
  • Tune in, does your environment feel barren or arid at times?
  • Bring attention to your body: Are these places in your body that feel depleted, exhausted? Places that could use some loving attention and kindness?
  • The aloe vera gel is the “superpower” of the plant.
  • Imagine that you have a healing, restorative ability within you.
  • As you breathe in, visualize that you are bringing new life and new energy into your body. Let yourself breathe for 10 seconds. Stay with this image.
  • As you do, give yourself some kindness and compassion.
  • Allow yourself to feel refreshed and renewed by your breath, and the restorative power of taking a few moments to care for yourself.
  • Rest here for a few moments, connecting with the possibility to bring rejuvenation and kindness to yourself.
  • Bring compassion to any pain, discomfort, or difficult emotions that arise.
  • When you are ready, return to your day, knowing that you can return to “taking in the good” whenever you need a boost.

Holly practiced between our sessions and began to feel noticeably less depressed after a week of taking in the good. “I would never let myself linger with anything positive. At first, it seemed indulgent, but I started to feel better so I kept on going.” She paused. “Do you know the work of Rilke?” she asked. “Not really,” I had to admit. “There is a line that I’ve been thinking of that is about winter and resilience, that seems to apply. She quoted a fragment:

For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter/

That only by wintering through it will your heart survive.

“This is helping me survive. Thank you.”

References

Hanson, R. (2018). Resilient. NY: Harmony