Fibromyalgia and winter: Breaking the cycle of the ‘Season of Desolation’

“Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation”, Sinclair Lewis

It appears that there is more depression and anxiety in the winter. Seasonal affective disorders are frequent. Despondency, particularly in the dark, seems to last forever on those nights when one cannot sleep and daylight is still hours away. There is more reflection about our lives that can lead to sorrow and suffering. It seems too that the brain is even more eager to focus on the past memories that bring about reliving fearful events. Anxieties abound, especially when one is awakened at 3 a.m. and the night terrors are at their worst.

It is at this point that we can  do the mindfulness awareness practice of  “learning to stay”, as Pema  Chodron has written. In fact, there is little other choice for us. She writes: “The pith instruction is, Stay…stay…just stay”. When we restlessly toss and turn at night we have to calm the mind and settle. When it is dark at 4 p.m. and we begin the mantra of asking ourselves if the pain, fatigue and endless itching will continue until daylight and even beyond, we have to stay with it. When our bodies once again betray us we have to learn to speak to it in a non- judgmental way, for example: “So here it is again, that pain in my left foot. Okay now, why are you here? Well, you’ll probably leave in a few hours, so let me just stay with you while you do your thing”. Living moment by moment in this way will cut short the time brooding  and ruminating about past experiences that have brought about night terrors, sleeplessness, aches and pains that seem non-ending. Will these aggravations be there in the morning when daylight once again appears? Probably-maybe- as many of us experience that dreadful feeling of fatigue upon awakening. But, there is a strategy we can employ. It is the BODY SCAN TECHNIQUE…the focussing of our attention on various parts of the body and staying with each body part, no matter how painful and accepting every area for what it is at that moment.  Rather than being critical of ourselves we can stay in the moment and just let it be. Our struggles with the symptoms of fibromyalgia always exacerbate the fearfulness of the dis-ease.

It isn’t easy. We want to change our fate; the suffering is uncomfortable; we want to force our bodies into a better state. But, it is only when we have self compassion for ourselves and develop a curiosity about how we can re-train our mind to explore the bodily sensations in a less rigid way can we find some degree of hope and well being. What do we have to lose, especially at this time of year when so much seems stressful and dark? There is no other option but working with our thought patterns in a non- critical way. I recently read this message on a woman’s handbag:” Do one thing a day that scares you”. Well, just being with my physical sensations instead of struggling against them might be fearful, but staying in the moment means being kind to myself and in the end that’s all there is-  after all, I am my own best friend.

pema's book 001


  1. Valda Garner says:

    Hi Barbara, I was thinking of you the other day. I am having surgery tomorrow for stress incontinence and my pre-op EKG was abnormal. It seems that I have pulmonary hypertension and right sided heart damage from undiagnosed sleep apnea. I have more testing to complete, but this certainly explains the shortness of breath and extreme fatigue at times when climbing stairs. For those of us with fibromyalgia the tendency is to blame everything on the fibro, but we get sick with other things too and some are quite serious. I am hoping you are as well as you can be. Your light hours are getting longer so spring is just around the corner. Take good care, Valda

  2. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Valda:
    Your comments are exceptionally important for all the readers. I, like you, blamed my heart symptoms on fibromyalgia and the anxiety that often accompanies it. My family physician did also. You are so right- we blame everything on fibro and often disregard crucial health issues.
    May I say how sorry I am about your heart disease. I hope you will subscribe to and read the wonderful blogs from Carolyn Thomas, the expert who has helped me more than anyone during this past year since my heart attack.
    It is interesting that you also have pelvic disorders- read some of my blogs about these issues and the ways in which a woman can help herself to retrain the pelvic floor.
    It seems as though you are following a similar path to mine. I have often wondered if my sleep disorder is related to my heart disease. I startle myself awake each night, often gasping for breath!Hmmmmmmmmmmm!
    But it is to your heart disease that I want to voice the main concern. I hope you will write soon to let us know the results of further testing.
    Thinking of you,

  3. Valda Garner says:

    Dear Barbara, Thank you so much for your caring and concern. I am concerned for you, because it sounds as though you may have sleep apnea too. Sleep apnea is so prevalent with 1 out of every 5 people affected by this condition. Most don’t know how devastating this can be on the heart. It was the sleep specialist/pulmanologist that first suspected that this may be an issue. I only knew about obstructive sleep apnea until now. In addition to obstructive sleep apnea I believe I also have central sleep apnea, because sometimes I just stop breathing for no reason and I have to think to breathe. I sometimes dream that I am unable to breathe and am awakened gasping for breath too. I did have my surgery today and am doing well thanks to good doctors and exceptional nurses. Thank you for the Web site . . . I have seen Carolyn on your blog comments in previous posts. I will also check out your previous posts about pelvic disorders. I appreciate you more than you know. Thinking of you too, Valda

  4. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Valda:
    You may be right- perhaps most, if not all of us with fibro have sleep apnea. After all, with the anxiety we have we tend to hold our breath much more so than the general population. For that reason such practices as gentle yoga, Chi-gong, Tai-Chi and meditation can help us with our breathing issues. Interestingly, when one is doing exercises, shortness of breath from anxiety tends to diminish which leads me once again to the idea that anxiety is the core issue for people with fibro and chronic fatigue.
    I wish more of the readers would respond to these issues, but alas it is the old blogs about itching and, as well, the use of medical marihuana that seem to attract the most traffic!
    I have to do more research on sleep apnea and heart disease with a possible link to anxiety (a well researched condition that results in holding one’s breath!), with a final connection to fibromyalgia. I doubt all these links have been made though. All of this is speculation, of course, but it seems as though researchers are more intent on finding out what health conditions happen to people with fibro, assuming CAUSE, rather than the end result of years of living with the dis-ease-EFFECT.
    I will ask the guru of women and heart disease, Carolyn Thomas, to respond to the relationship between sleep apnea and heart disease.
    Keep recovering well from your pelvic floor disorder and hopefully you will know more soon about your recently discovered heart disease,

  5. Carolyn Thomas says:

    Hello Barbara and Valda

    Such an important issue! There is a known but under-appreciated link between sleep disorders and cardiovascular health. See more at: “Are Your Sleep Problems Linked To Increased Heart Disease Risk?” – It’s not clear about a causal relationship, but there does indeed seem to be a correlation.

    New York sleep specialist Dr. Steven Park believes that sleep disorders (not just apnea) may be responsible for a wider range of health issues than we currently know. He writes: “Physicians have to erase the image of the traditional sleep apnea patient as being overweight, snoring, male, with a big neck.”

    Barbara, when you say: “I startle myself awake each night, often gasping for breath!” – well, you know that it’s just not “normal” for a person’s body to be doing that each night. I tend to agree with Valda’s assessment here!

    BTW, I’m neither an expert or a guru (oh please! the pressure!) but more like an obsessed heart patient trying to find my way.

    hugs to you both,

  6. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Valda and Carolyn:
    I have been concerned about and having night terrors, sleep walking, frightening dreams and insomnia all my life. It began as an infant when I would sleep walk. At 5 when the nuns further terrified me about hell and other horrific things I began hyperventilating at night and fainting often during the day. In nurses’ training they became even worse and have always plagued me. Anxiety is no doubt the root cause. I have never taken nor have much faith in mood altering drugs so I have to rely on other strategies.
    It is only within the past year at Mindfulness Meditation that I fully recognized the extent to which I hold my breath when I am anxious or excited. Living in the moment means being aware of my thoughts ‘in the moment’. In fact, most days now when I say “Mindful’ to myself I can catch it but it takes a great deal of discipline. Maybe, just maybe, I can eventually translate this to my unconscious sleeping mind and when I am dreaming of terrible things I can ask myself “is this a dream or reality”? The MM instructor-psychologist says there is a strategy for such a practice which I am looking into. Again, all of this takes time and discipline. “Remember to breathe” is my moment to moment mantra.
    However, I am seeing the cardiologist on the 18th and I will discuss sleep apnea with him as I am not ruling this out and believe it is a serious issue for heart disease ‘patients’.
    You ARE an expert, Carolyn. Your research skills, your website, your training at the Mayo Clinic, your speeches and writing reflect that you are an authority. Stand proud of your knowledge:-)
    Thank you both for your concern.

  7. Valda Garner says:

    Hi Barbara, I am so sorry you have had night terrors for so long. Do you have a dream catcher? Those protective spirits in that dream catcher may help. I have also held my breath frequently throughout the day and have had some anxiety due to growing up with a narcissistic mother. I have been able to control some of that anxiety and feel better now that I’m no longer working with the demands of others always putting pressure on me. I must frequently remind myself to breathe, but I can only do that during the day. I’m not sure if a central sleep apnea would apply during the day or if that is only a phenomenon that can affect a person while in a sleep state. One question leads to another, doesn’t it?! I had my echocardiogram yesterday so I will find out soon if there is damage to my heart. Thanks so much for your support. Warmest regards, Valda

  8. Valda Garner says:

    Hi Barbara, It is so refreshing for me to talk with someone that is interested in root cause rather than the end result. I too dig further into a problem and look for connections that have not been made. I have noticed too that the blogs receiving awards are those that read like a soap opera and lots of complaining and anger. That isn’t a place that I reside and prefer to be positive and move forward. When thinking back I have not had problems with panic attacks, but have had to manage some low level anxiety. It’s funny to think that when I was leading a hospital system in their Joint Commission survey that I was the rock that soothed others. Thanks for providing me with intellectual stimulation and concepts that get my brain working. Take good care, Valda

  9. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Yep, I have a great dream catcher, in fact, a big, beautiful one, NOT commercially made, given to me by an ex-daughter-in-law. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked, haha!

  10. Valda Garner says:

    Dear Barbara, I have done more research on sleep apnea and fibromyalgia and on the WebMD community forum a woman named Barbara (isn’t that a coincidence?) talked about being diagnosed with central sleep apnea and the terrible night terrors she had. Treatment of her sleep apnea has reduced her night terrors. I just wrote a blog containing some of the literature about fibromyalgia and sleep apnea. It seems that most of us have sleep apnea and treatment may be the key to some of our symptoms. My blog is Too bad that dream catcher hasn’t worked for you! Be well, Valda

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