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Learning to Like Winter

by Caroline Veldhuis, Psychotherapist 

January 2, 2019

January is often marked by renewed energy as we open calendars with a clean slate and a wonderful sense of possibility; for some, I must acknowledge, it also signals three months of winter and anticipation of the  ‘winter blues’. Full disclosure: I am not a big fan of this season, and I too have struggled with the physical and mental impacts of sub-zero outdoor temperatures, barren landscapes, and shorter hours of daylight. For me, this shows up primarily as low energy, which in anyone has the potential to domino towards inertia and a lower mood.

Part of my reaction, I believe, comes from a sense of passivity in dealing with this powerful force of nature. On some level winter has felt overwhelming to my sun- and swim-loving nature. In recent years, however, I’ve made some subtle mental shifts and also taken a more pro-active approach informed by research, experimentation, and tips from others. I’ve learned that a handful of small actions can have a cumulative effect in supporting our well-being and can help mitigate the winter blues*:

1) First off, give yourself a break if January brings the urge to lighten your out-of-home schedule and cocoon. Winter is by nature’s design a time of rest and retreat. It makes perfect sense that you feel like staying home under a cozy blanket, catching up on sleep, or retreating into books, movies, or podcasts. Honour what your body is asking for and allow yourself to experience time on a human (rather than technology-driven) scale. Many people find that winter is the ideal season for reading, for example. You could pick up books you’re drawn to in the moment; work through a list of titles you noted during the busier warmer months if you’re more goal oriented, or get creative and pursue a book, movie, or podcast theme.

2) Recognize that lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise impact mental as well as physical health regardless of season. Research is showing increasing links between mind and body – and what we ingest can make a difference.  If you’re feeling persistently lethargic, do ensure that you rule out an underlying cause, such as an underactive thyroid or vitamin deficiency. Ensure you’re getting the recommended daily allowances of vitamin A-B-Cs (and Ds!) and Omegas, for example. Water intake can make a noticeable difference, as dehydration often manifests as tiredness. A 20-30 minute morning walk in natural light can also have a positive impact.

3) Engage and nourish all your senses. Connect with the outside world by discovering what sights, scents, tactile stimulation, and sounds you really like then create/engage in environments you find uplifting. One person I know took a weekend to declutter her bedroom and created a botanical collage on her wall, reporting this upped her energy and motivation. Particularly when the landscape appears to be a sea of grey and white, infusions of colour can have mood-boosting and energizing effect. In the aromatherapy category, geranium and lemon are two of several uplifting scents: I use them in handwash for several daily doses. Music can have powerfully energizing: why not take an afternoon and create a playlist that does the trick for you.

4) Develop rituals A few meaningful routines can have a big impact in navigating the winter months with more pleasure and ease. You might want to develop particular winter rituals, including things you might not do at other times of year. One person lights candles every evening when she gets home to add warmth to her living space; another makes a new soup or stew each Sunday afternoon from January through to the end of March.

5) Connect with others. While winter represents a season of ‘hibernation’ and a time to go within, complete isolation means you’ll go without all the mental health benefits of social engagement. A friend used to address winter blahs by throwing a low-cost theme party every winter, such as ‘colouring for adults’.  Do connect with friends, emphasizing F2F and voice to voice (i.e., telephone over text) interaction as much as possible. Laughing out loud with someone just can’t be replicated in text or instant messaging: sometimes you literally have to be there.

6) Honour and work with Mother Nature, rather than against her: I always had a harder time with winter when I reacted to her presence with complaints and resistance…even resentment that I couldn’t be in a warmer, sunnier climate. This only amplified bad feelings. By simply noticing the cold and dialing down the negative judgments (“I hate cold, I don’t want to be here, I can’t believe we have 10 more weeks of this…”), my overall outlook shifted and I engaged in more practical problem-solving (hello turtlenecks and wool layers) as I decided to befriend winter. I’ve become more curious about the science of seasons, and also taken more time to notice and photograph the beauty of winter landscapes.

7) It is not unusual for people to tell me they feel cooped up and bored through the coldest winters. It may be helpful to view the season as an opportunity to engage in personal projects such as learning a new skill, taking an online course, or laying the groundwork for bigger moves, such as a job or career change. Winter can be a time for research, reflection, and decision making, all while you gather your energy for more ‘external action’ and changes  in the spring.

*Suggestions are not meant as a substitute for personalized, professional treatment for clinical depression. If you are feeling a persistent and/or intense lack of motivation, sadness, crying, marked changes in eating and sleeping habits, social withdrawal or suicidal thoughts, please seek professional help.

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