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Let’s Talk About Mental Health: Gearing up for winter

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Cross-country skiing the Roller Coaster Trail in Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY JACOB W. FRANK/NPS
“To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.” — Emily Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle


For many in Big Sky, a great start to the winter season means a good snowpack, and the snow gods have certainly delivered this year. The first bouts of snow and bluebird days can bring a sense of possibility and hope for the season to come. Winter and the holidays can make us feel warm and excited, but also a bit messy, sad/lonely, confused, and overwhelmed all at once. Our little resort town of 3,500 people swells to over 15,000, becoming vibrant and bustling. Our to-do lists, pace, and hours on the clock ramp up, and we are called to meet the needs of our customers and community. While Big Sky ramps up, it is important to remember that our natural instincts are calling us to slow down and move into a state of “wintering.” Wintering is not about throwing out the to-do lists or cutting back work hours (because sometimes this isn’t possible), but it’s about discovering a sense of calm and rest within yourself. How can we find calm amongst the chaos, as if we are in the eye of the storm?

Oftentimes we compartmentalize stressors in our lives, “Not now. I need to deal with that later.” The thing about chronic, collective, and prolonged stress, however, is that it weighs heavy on our nervous systems and those emotions we are putting in a box, high on a shelf can get ‘stuck.’

Under “normal” conditions, a stressor activates the fight-or-flight response and our survival instincts kick in: heart rate increases, pupils dilate, blood flow moves to your arms and legs, hormones are released, and there’s a burst of adrenaline mobilizing us to fight or flee. Once the threat or stressor has passed, our relaxation response ignites, returning our blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning and hormones to normal levels. Running or fighting allows our bodies to discharge the energy and emotion built up from the stressful situation, and our nervous system returns to an even-keel, groovy state.

The nervous system process described above captures what may happen during a single stressful incident such as encountering a bear on a trail. However, being human in the modern world, means enduring a variety of both small and large stressors throughout any given day. Collectively, we are experiencing chronic and prolonged stress resulting in a wacked out nervous system. Stress that is left unattended can result in feeling hyper-aroused (anxious, unable to relax, restless, emotional, irritable, and angry) or hypo-aroused (depressed, flat, tired/exhausted, and disconnected). Therefore, while Big Sky ramps up, it is important to remember that our bodies need to slow down and take time to re-set throughout the day, so we can avoid getting ‘stuck’ and return to a calm, baseline state. Otherwise, we run the risk of physical health consequences: headaches, chronic pain, catching a cold, having difficulty sleeping and more. Additionally, prolonged stress has a negative effect on thinking clearly, logically and making ‘good’ decisions.

Gear up with tools to avoid getting stuck. Allow yourself to be human. Get outside.

  1. Avoid getting stuck: There are simple tools we can use on a daily basis that calm our nervous system and activate the relaxation response including breathing techniques and movements.


Five Finger Breathing: Extend your left hand out in front of your face, palm facing away from you. Use your right pointer finger to begin drawing a line from the base of your hand and up to the top of the pinky (inhale), down between pinky and ring finger (exhale), up to the top of your middle finger (inhale), down between middle and pointer finger (exhale), up to the top of your pointer finger (inhale), down between pointer and thumb (exhale), up to the top of your thumb (inhale), and exhale as you draw down the thumb side of your wrist and arm.

Vagus Nerve Tapping: Using your first finger and middle finger with both hands, begin tapping sternum just below collarbone. The vagus nerve is a link between our brain, nervous system and other parts of our body including heart, lungs, organs, stomach and intestine. As the brain takes in messages from all parts of the body, it also communicates information out to the body. Tapping the vagus nerve signals the nervous system to relax.

Tip: Take a moment to notice how you feel after engaging in the breathing or vagus nerve tapping exercise for at least one minute.

  • Allow: Let’s allow ourselves to be as we are and feel whatever we feel in each and every moment. Life is messy and it is a part of being human, so feel all the things without judgement. According to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the cycle of an emotion is 90 seconds. Ninety seconds is all it takes to identify an emotion and allow it to dissipate by simply noticing it.

Tip: When an emotion comes up, pause, notice, label what you are feeling, and watch it go away. Use one of the tools above to bring your nervous system back to a regulated state.

  • Get outside: There is a link between exposure to nature and reduction in stress. You may feel relief within minutes of being outside. Research has shown exposure results in decreased muscle tension, blood pressure and brain activity, as well as a reduction in the stress hormone (cortisol) and a boost in endorphin and dopamine levels, which promote happiness. A Big Sky community member and Navigator, Andy Nagel says, “Our biggest strength in Big Sky is our easy access to nature, wilderness, mountains, wildlife, and so much more. An incomprehensible rhythm and flow exists here that is irresistible and therapeutic. At the same time, there’s a lot of people here that don’t experience that because the struggle is real. Big Sky is a hard place to live. Experiencing solace in the outdoors on it’s simplest level shouldn’t be a struggle, or hard to achieve. How can we watch out for each other, simply by making sure our friends, peers, and co-workers are experiencing the outdoors in some way, shape or form on a consistent basis?”

Shannon Steele is the behavioral health program officer at the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, and values a collaborative and community-centered approach to mental/behavioral health and wellness. She has a background in mind-body wellness and community health, and is also a certified yoga instructor and active volunteer. Community, wellness and the outdoors have always been pillars in Shannon’s life.

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