Battling the Blues — Part 2: Nurture the spirit
Editor’s note: This is part two in a series of four articles exploring the causes of — and ways to combat — winter blues. The focus of the series is on mental health and strategies for improving your state of mind through physical activity, spirituality, diet and community and connections.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Wherever you find your spirituality, research shows that finding that connection — that meaning — can provide a buffer against depression.
For whatever struggles or loss someone might be facing, the holidays can be an especially difficult time, said Dr. Jo Ann Grace the spiritual health care coordinator and bereavement counselor for Northwest Colorado Health’s hospice program. People may “inside feel really sad but are caught between everyone being joyful — it’s a paradox of emotions that can happen at the same time.”
Whether or not you worship a god or take part in an organized religion, Grace said, “It’s about connections, relationships, spirituality and how you are finding meaning in the midst of the holiday season.”
For some, especially living in a place surrounded by spectacular natural beauty, that connection to something larger — or sense of deep gratitude, awe and peace — can be found on a mountaintop or at the edge of a pristine lake.
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“Nature is one of the most underutilized treasures in life. It has the power to unburden hearts and reconnect to that inner place of peace,” wrote Dr. Janice Anderson and Kiersten Anderson in their book “Off Beat Enlightenment, which focuses on different ways to find inner peace, health and happiness.
The quest for spirituality and meaning can be one that is ever-evolving, ever-growing and change throughout a person’s life.
“Where do you look for this hope that you know is there?” Bob Dylan queried in his poem, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” “You can either go to the church of your choice/ Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital.”
That spiritual quest and search for meaning gets at “thinking about what it means to be human,” said Grace. “And connection — where you can make those connections that allows you to be most fully yourself.”
Grace is also a neuroscientist, helping people in her private practice to understand the connections between the brain, body and spirit.
What: Blue Christmas Service
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 21
Where: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 846 Oak St.
In her work, Grace has found that when people are in a period of grief, they can find relief by focusing on what they most value — and where they feel free and fully engaged — whether that be worshipping a god, practicing yoga, digging in the garden or riding a horse.
And in addition to the individual component, there’s “also a communal component,” she said. “Our brain needs to connect to a tribe.”
In the study of the Blue Zones, the locations across the globe with the highest percentage of centenarians, several of the top keys to longevity are finding a sense of purpose, belonging to a community and the nurturing of one’s religion or spirituality.
The Blue Zone research attributed physical and mental benefits to spirituality.
“People who pay attention to their spiritual side have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, depression, stress and suicide, and their immune systems seem to work better. … To a certain extent, adherence to a religion allows them to relinquish the stresses of everyday life to a higher power,” said Dan Buettner, Blue Zones founder.
Religiosity and spirituality have been shown to cause changes in the brain, such as increasing serotonin.
There is also an increasing amount of research on the benefits of the practice of meditation and mindfulness — being fully aware of the moment — to both physical and mental health and combatting the blues.
“Meditation trains the brain to achieve sustained focus and to return to that focus when negative thinking, emotions and physical sensations intrude — which happens a lot when you feel stressed and anxious,” according to Dr. John W. Denninger, director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.
On Thursday, Dec. 12, Grace is co-facilitating the Blue Christmas service at 6 p.m. at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Steamboat Springs.
It is a nondenominational service “to support individuals who are grieving or feeling down this holiday season.”
The service is a chance for people to gather together, write a name or message on a star and hang it on a tree, light a candle and “honor a person or honor the self and recognize the transition you are going through,” Grace said. “And recognize you are not by yourself — other people are going through similar experiences.”
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