Staying connected to the world around you

How do we remind ourselves that we’re part of the interconnectedness of everything?

I’ve been ‘inviting people into my garden’ through Facebook for nearly four years, since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, when travel and activity was restricted. I was acutely aware that some people didn’t have their own gardens or even balconies, and I shared my green space to give people ‘virtual access’ to nature.

Lucy Hyde therapist sitting amongst some trees

It’s been valuable for me to connect to others by connecting to the natural world. At times, when life is busy, the gentle pressure to check what’s happening in the garden has reminded me to spend even a few moments noticing the changes and new arrivals. It’s encouraged me to bring my attention to the tiniest flowers, the weeds, the creatures that make their life in my garden.

Humans are part of the ecosystem

Something in me has evolved over the last few years, and I realise that I’ve changed the way I think of humans interacting with nature. The separation I used to see between ‘the human world’ and ‘the natural world’ feels more and more artificial, a symptom of the development of modern (industrial/post-industrial) society.

This synthetic distinction between humans and nature has encouraged humans to prioritise their own wants and needs without consideration for the impact on the world as a whole, and is a significant contributor towards the current climate and environmental tragedy.

Humans are part of the global ecosystem too. Looked at on a geological scale, humans were an extremely successful species for a long time at surviving and thriving. However, if we continue as we do we will suffer a huge population crash – possibly functional extinction. Nonetheless in a few millennia the planet will adjust and adapt to a new climatic system, and life (with or without humans) will continue. Taking this wide-angle view sometimes helps me accept that humans are just part of the natural cycle of life on the planet.

A one-world view

I joined a choir a few months ago, and one of the songs that I’ve learned is ‘Mni Wičoni (Water is Life), which was written by Sara Thomsen, inspired by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and all the tribes, nations, native and non-native people who came together to protect the land and water threatened by the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (you can hear the song here ).

One of the Lakota phrases in the song is ‘Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ’. The closest translation, in English, is ‘all my relations’ – but ‘relations’ in the sense of other people, animals, insects, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers……..this one-world-view of ‘all my relations’ really resonated for me, and continues to touch me every time I sing the song. 

Disconnection as a defence

The disconnection that many of us maintain from the rest of the world encourages us to see bugs and beasties as ‘pests’, to vacuum up spiders (that would thrive, if we allowed them to, by eating the flies that annoy us). It prompts us to see nature as ‘inconvenient’ when moss grows on our plastic grass and concrete driveways. But it also enables us to ignore the pain and sorrow we experience if we really allow ourselves to notice how the numbers of swifts arriving each summer has plunged, how there aren’t as many ladybirds around from year to year, how seeing a hedgehog in our garden is a vanishing rarity.

Small reminders of the world around us can help us stay connected – connected to other people, connected to ‘all our relations’, connected to our own experience. Staying connected is essential if we want to make changes in ourselves and in our societies – together we are stronger and more resilient, and have a better chance of making life possible and tolerable for everyone, not just a privileged minority of humans. Finding ways to connect reduces the fear-based ‘us and them’ which prompts us to blame others for the wrongs in the world and stops us hearing that those people are afraid too.

Connecting in grief

finding your home Lucy Hyde online therapist

Staying connected to the world we inhabit inevitably involves grieving (e.g. in my case, when hundreds of thousands of scallops were washed up onto the shores near me by Storm Babet, to perish above the waterline). Grief, anger and sadness are appropriate, natural responses to tragedy, and by allowing ourselves to feel them we learn that we can tolerate them and carry on. Grief can bring people together.

Yet there can be a temptation to avoid strong or difficult feelings by numbing or distracting ourselves through forms that are harmful to us and the world (escaping on a flight, buying things without considering whether, honestly, we need them, over-eating or drinking). Most of us do this in some way, at some point – because staying with the discomfort can be really hard.

Many of us are expert at compartmentalising, which causes us to miss the relationships between things, for example, the influence of mind on body and vice versa. Just as we are healthier creatures if we allow our bodies and minds to be part of the same organism – enabling us to be more in tune with our needs – so we might be healthier creatures if we allow ourselves to be part of a community of humankind and of the world as a whole, bringing us in tune with the holistic, planetary need for health.

Noticing what’s around you

Paying attention to the seasonal changes and to older traditions of marking shifts through the year is a way I’ve found to be more in touch with what’s going on around me, and also to the impact of such changes on me – which includes allowing myself to feel affected by gloomy days, for example.

So, while I’ll be continuing to invite people into my garden, I’ll be thinking of this less as a retreat or withdrawal to nature, and more as an invitation to be present with what’s around you, wherever you are.  I’m not offering hope that ‘everything will be OK’, so much as an opportunity to be real and present, acknowledging what IS. Staying connected is a way of supporting each other in our collective grief.

Nature isn’t just ‘out there in the wilderness’. It’s in the daisy growing between the paving slabs. It’s in the spider in the corner of your ceiling. It’s in you.

If you’re experiencing anxiety, grief and distress in reaction to the impact of capitalism, greed and fear on the planet – no wonder; your response is normal and healthy.  But if your feelings are overwhelming and seem unbearable, please get in touch – I can help. 

Further reading:

Wild Therapy: Rewilding our inner and outer worlds by Nick Totton

Holding the Hope: Reviving psychological and spiritual agency in the face of climate change ed. Linda Aspey, Catherine Jackson, Diane Parker

Have I got SAD – or do I need to slow down?

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder – and do you have it?

How do you feel when the days start getting shorter? Do you experience a building dread of dark mornings, where you struggle to drag yourself out of bed? Do you look forward to being able to coorie in under a blanket when it’s gloomy outside? Or perhaps it’s not the lack of light that you find difficult, but the weather – not being able to soak up the sun like a solar panel prompts anxiety that your battery is going to run low.

Seasonal Affective Disorder – what does it mean?

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a term used for feeling depressed, low in motivation and lacking in energy at certain times of the year. ‘Winter-pattern SAD’ is when people begin to experience symptoms in autumn and through winter, but some people also experience mood changes (anxiety, agitation) in spring and summer – ‘summer-pattern SAD’ – although this is less common.

The jury is still out on what exactly causes SAD – there are a number of factors indicated, including melatonin levels and vitamin D. People with a family history of depression are more likely to experience it. For some people, these changes in mood can be really debilitating, meaning that they experience severe symptoms of depression for almost half the year, so it can have a huge impact on their enjoyment of life.

Trees at the edge of water with mountains behind

Being human in the world

I’m absolutely not denying the reality of people’s experiences, or to suggest that you shouldn’t seek support for managing symptoms of depression, fatigue and social avoidance or anxiety. But for most of us, when we notice some changes in how we feel at different times of year, I wonder how helpful it really is to casually adopt a ‘disorder’ label.

I also wonder how much SAD is a product of a modern society that has evolved to a point where we need to ignore our bodies’ natural tendencies, in order to see ourselves as ‘operating productively’. The period where industrial and post-industrial society developed is the blink of an eye when compared to the timescale over which human animals evolve, and perhaps our bodies are struggling to catch up with the expectations of capitalism. Doing more than we have energy or capacity for (whatever the reason) ultimately leads to burnout and exhaustion – often manifesting as depression or anxiety.

The urge to see ourselves as somehow ‘other’ from the natural world has contributed to an inability to truly acknowledge the destructive impact humans have had on the world as a whole. Life as humans have come to live it in the 20th and 21st centuries has encouraged us to suppress our natural responses to the changes in the world around us – including regular, seasonal changes – to the extent that when we notice that we’re feeling differently, we try and make it ‘wrong’.

‘Disorder’ or natural response?

Following this line of thought, I wonder if there is a healthier, more compassionate approach to changes in mood and energy levels related to the shift into autumn and winter. Rather than asking ourselves ‘how can I feel more like I do in the summer?’ perhaps we can ask instead:

  • How can I be more understanding of my changes in mood or energy?
  • Where can I look for opportunities to live in the way that my whole self needs?
  • What do I need in order to take care of myself so that I can be ‘well enough’ in the world as it currently is?

Let’s explore these questions a little bit more.

rowing boat at the edge of sea with mountains behind

Bringing a compassionate understanding to our responses to seasonal change

The phrase ‘the natural world’ tends to be used to denote something separate from humans, and all human-created things. But human beings are animals, and it doesn’t serve us well to think that we don’t have the same basic needs as other mammals – eating, resting, mating, etc. We are still part of an ecosystem, although we collectively tend to try and distance ourselves from the rest of the world in an attempt to avoid the pain of acknowledging our destructive behaviours towards it.

In the Global North, until only a few hundred years ago, humans lived in a way that was much more responsive to the seasons. Our survival depended on us having a closer relationship with the land that fed us. Of necessity we needed to be much more active at certain times of year to produce, gather and store the food that would keep us going through the months of scarcity. While humans didn’t hibernate like some creatures (that are able to slow their body rates down in winter), the pace of life would have been slower over darker, winter months, where there was less to do on the land. Depending on food stores, there might be less food to provide energy for activity. I have a friend who works in a physical, seasonal job, who refers to the depths of winter as ‘plumping-up season’.

I also wonder how much we allow ourselves to live with the fluctuating energy levels that develop as part of the ageing process. Our bodies evolved to fulfil different roles at different life stages, and historically women wouldn’t expect to live for decades after our ability to procreate ceased. I’ve noticed that post-menopause, I tend to naturally want to be less active in the winter months. It’s difficult to know how much of this is connected to the changes in my body and energy levels, and how much is because I have learned to better tune into my body’s needs rather than overruling them.

Would you describe yourself with the words ‘I like to keep busy’? If so – have you ever thought about what that ‘liking’ is about? Many of us use busyness or activity as a coping mechanism – it distracts us and helps us avoid feelings. If we’re not being active we may start to feel anxious, and attach this anxiety to a ‘problem’ that we can then get busy trying to fix. If this rings true for you, then any natural slowing-down tendencies you may experience during winter months might feel a bit scary, because allowing yourself more space brings the potential for anxiety.

carved stone face in front of hills

Living in the way that our bodies need

I’m fortunate to have moved myself to a career that allows me some freedom to dictate my working pattern through self-employment. In recent years I’ve come to realise that I have less energy towards the end of the year. I need to bear in mind, when planning ahead, that setting myself goals for the last quarter is unhelpful – I don’t achieve them and I end up feeling I’ve failed or ‘not tried hard enough’. I can structure my appointments so that most days I can squeeze in a quick dip in the sea, which particularly works for me in the winter as it gives me an intense burst of ‘outsideness’ when I may not feel motivated to go for a long walk.

Not everyone can dictate their working pattern or life to this extent; even if you recognise that your body would prefer you to have a different structure to your day, this may not be possible due to the requirements of your job or employer. However, most people have at least some autonomy to tweak aspects of day to day life – if they can allow themselves to recognise the value of prioritising their needs.

Ask yourself whether you really want to be more active or energetic in winter. Is that about your needs, or does it have the words ‘I should’ attached to it? Is it influenced by what you imagine others think or do; have you been affected by what you perceive as societal norms, or the ‘living my best life’ impact of social media? Most of us are influenced by these factors to some extent, even if we like to tell ourselves ‘I don’t care what others think’.

Modern society as lived in many countries is focused on productivity to a degree that is unhealthy for the planet and for us, creating a myth that economic growth is desirable and feeding fears of scarcity. It benefits the world when we do less, as well as allowing us to recover – and to save money. If you feel the urge to shop to ‘cheer yourself up’, try pausing for a moment and checking in with your inner self what need you might be trying to meet. How you might turn towards that part of you with kindness rather than trying to distract yourself from it by looking for external stimulation.

Wind-blown pine tree at the edge of sea

Taking care of ourselves ‘well enough’

We’re living, breathing creatures and how we feel changes depending on what’s going on around us, and the events and stresses that we’re subject to in our lives. That includes weather, daylight hours, temperature. Telling ourselves that we can carry on operating at the same capacity whatever happens around us, and to us, is a denial of reality and longer term isn’t good for us.

However, in order to carrying on living in society it’s necessary to accept that the modern world isn’t currently responsive to the needs of most of the world’s inhabitants (of all species). My ‘perfect world’ might not be the one I currently live in, and it’s important to recognise that, and allow myself to feel the grief of it, but I also have to find a balance that is ‘good enough’ for me to keep living in the world as it is.

I think of this as a little bit like the experience of being autistic in a world where the neurotypical experience is privileged. Autistic people shouldn’t have to do all the work to adapt to a society that often doesn’t work for them, but until society itself evolves to be more accessible and accepting to all, the choice for autistic people can sometimes be (unfairly) adapt or withdraw.

Swimmers in a grey sea below a rainbow

What might help develop self-compassion?

I use a Focusing practice to regularly check in to what I need. Although having a routine helps me, it can sometimes mean that I shut myself off from noticing when I need to slow down. I (try to) accept that I might not always know what I need, and that this will change from day to day – and perhaps more importantly, I give myself a break if I realise I’ve overdone it or made the ‘wrong’ choice. Learning to listen to what your whole self needs – rather than to the internal parent or inner critic that’s very good at telling you what you ‘should’ be doing – can be truly healing.

Treatments that are recommended for SAD are worth considering, but pay attention to what feels right for you, rather than trying to convince your body that it’s not really winter. For example, generally I’m an early riser and structure my work to suit this. For a few months of the year, though, my body would really like to wake later but it’s not practical for me to chop and change appointments. I use an alarm-clock-light that gets gradually brighter to simulate sunrise, which helps, but I also accept that I feel more sluggish in these few months of dark mornings, so I have lower expectations of what I’ll achieve.

But what if SAD really fits my experience?

If you experience severe depression as a result of changing seasons, you’ll probably find it helpful to investigate this with the help of a counsellor or psychotherapist. People severely affected by SAD are more likely to have depression, bipolar or SAD in their family history. This is as likely to indicate inherited emotional dysregulation (patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour are often passed down through families) as a ‘genetic tendency’. There’s a good chance that, with the support of an empathic other, you can make changes that will help you feel better (and perhaps interrupt the generational cycle too).

While it’s increasingly accepted that there’s no evidence for the ‘chemical imbalance in the brain’ theory of depression, antidepressants can still be helpful for dialling down strong emotions to a point where you can begin to tackle the issues underlying them. There are other self-help suggestions for SAD here .

I don’t believe it’s helpful to assume that changing moods or energy levels are a ‘disorder’. Arguably it could be disordered thinking to believe that we should continue to function in the same way all year round, unless we live in a part of the world that doesn’t have significant seasonal changes.

Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if were not balanced by sadness.

Carl Jung

If you find it difficult to tune into what your body is telling you that you need, or if you find it scary or uncomfortable to sit with strong emotions, you may find it helpful to learn Inner Relationship Focusing, which is a self-help practice that supports development of a compassionate attitude towards parts of yourself that you usually ignore. Please get in touch if you’d like to learn more about it, or watch the video on this page.

cloud in valley below mountain and blue sky

Further resources