By Heather Glidden
The temps feel like they’ve been cold forever. Theoretically the days are getting longer, but the days still seem pretty short to me, and summer still feels like a long time away. This makes February one of the toughest months in Michigan.
What’s the secret ingredient to creating joy during one of the darkest, coldest months of the year? The surprising answer is to open your heart to it!
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to fall in love with the winter (although you may find you don’t mind it as much if you practice what I’m about to teach you). What I’m actually talking about is just opening your chest and relaxing into your body.
Here’s what happens: a common response to cold is to tense up and brace. Your shoulders round forward, they might go up to your ears, and you close in on yourself.
This posture has a negative physical effect, but it also has a mental and emotional effect. To understand this, try the posture right now. What does it feel like when your chest closes in? Look at yourself in a mirror—what does that posture telegraph about your inner state? Does it feel more constricted? Does it look less confident?
Now try an upright posture with your chest open and relaxed. What does that feel like in your body? What differences do you notice from the rounded shoulders posture? Does it feel like you can move a little more freely? Look in a mirror — what do you notice about yourself in this posture? Do you look maybe a little more optimistic?
Your nervous system registers the tensing response that happens in your body when you encounter the cold and reads it as a sign that something is wrong. Tensing our muscles and bracing are the strategies that our bodies uses to be prepared in a dangerous situation, so this response sends the message to your nervous system that you are in danger. In order to keep you safe, your body releases the hormones that allow you to be on alert and more reactive. But as you become more reactive, you respond even more strongly to the cold — tensing up and bracing even more. This whole response cycle becomes a negative reinforcement loop that just tells you more and more that you are unhappy.
The way you break the cycle is to consciously relax your body and open up your chest. As you relax, your body shifts out of high-alert state, allowing you to relax more. Your shoulders roll backward and down, you stand up straighter, and it actually becomes much easier to experience positive emotions and feelings. This can take a little practice before it becomes habit, but the reward is feeling a lot happier and more relaxed in the winter.
Here are a few simple strategies you can use throughout your day to release tension, open up your chest, and start to feel better right away.
- Use Visualization
Visualize a plane of warm glowing light, like an X-ray, that starts at the top of your head and scans down through your body all the way to the soles of your feet. Silently name each body part as the light passes through it. Visualize the light warming and melting each body part as it passes through you. You can feel the light start at your skin and then gradually penetrate deeper and deeper into your body. Repeat the scan two or three times, relaxing a little deeper with each pass.
- Get Moving
A simple way to get moving outdoors is to walk with walking sticks. Using the sticks will get your arms moving, and as your arms move, you will naturally stand up straighter, release tension from your shoulders, and open up your chest. You’ll also warm up faster, and the sticks will help you keep your balance, even on icy sidewalks.
If you prefer to stay indoors, move your spine. You can arch, curl, twist, and do side bends. Just move gently and imagine your spine thawing and becoming more and more supple as you move. Don’t force anything. Moving your spine is a great way to generate internal heat.
Play! Do jumping jacks, get out a jump-rope, or find a hula hoop. Doing things that feel fun and even a little silly helps your body naturally start to open up. Bonus points if you can laugh and also get your heart rate up!
- Take Deep Breaths
When you round your shoulders and close your chest, your breath gets shallower. Shallow breath makes you more likely to lift your shoulders and can cause more tension in your neck. Allow your breath to drop all the way down through your chest and even into your belly. This will naturally start to open your chest and release tension. It’s also a great way to check in with your physical, mental, and emotional state.
One of my favorite breaths to release tension and open the heart chakra is to softly “snore” the breath in through the nose while gently widening the back of the throat. Visualize the breath filling the heart center and feel your body soften as it does.
- Acknowledge that Cold Is Just a Sensation
This one is a bit more esoteric but can make a big shift once you start to pay attention. Frequently we identify the sensation of cold as pain. If cold feels painful, then we brace against it much more, creating more stress and tension in our bodies. But in reality, cold is just a sensation. The next time you notice you are feeling cold, pay attention: are you responding to the cold as if it’s painful? If so, try to relax into the sensation instead. The more you relax, the better you will feel in the cold.
I hope these strategies can help you feel better in your body this month, and by extension, create more joy for you. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
Heather Glidden is the co-owner of JOY, a mind-body movement studio in downtown Ann Arbor. With 15 years of experience as a healing movement specialist, body worker, and integrative life coach, she helps her clients recover from pain and injuries and achieve radiant health. The mission of her studio is to bring more joy to the world by helping people feel great in their bodies.