Nachelle Nocom/Unsplash

Source: Nachelle Nocom/Unsplash

It’s the kind of dark-weather day in Oregon, where the clouds match the color of the mountains, which seem to flow seamlessly into the drab of the asphalt highways and concrete sidewalks. Everything a palette of gray.

This is the time of year too when folks—even those who grew up here and eschew even the mention of an umbrella on the rainiest days start stewing about the weather. It’s not the rain that is troublesome—not to me–and no it doesn’t rain here as often as you think. But the monochromatic tones and the shorter days, and longer nights. The darkness. Usually, by February, I’m over it.

It’s estimated that as many as one in three people living in the Northern Hemisphere, struggle with the “winter blues,” according to psychiatry researcher Brenda McMahon. 

For some those blues are characterized as Seasonal Affective Disorder, which causes depressive episodes, carbohydrate cravings, issues with oversleeping and other symptoms that emerge during the darker winter months and can also affect people in the southern hemisphere during the changing seasons there.

On the lower end of the spectrum, is a condition called subsyndromal Sad that affects about 15 percent of people, who do not have clinical depression, but struggle with mood and behavior changes during the darker days. SAD related symptoms can be treated through light therapy, antidepressants and other methods.

The Winter Blues

Many of us, just feel blue some days. Slow. Bearlike. Not depressed, but tired and flat, and not too interested in things. Women are usually affected by these seasonal changes more than men, something that could be a result of our biology and evolution, according to professor Robert Levithan.  The tendency to cocoon in the winter may have been a way for women to conserve energy for pregnancy and child-rearing.

These days there is little time to nest. Even now, if we are working from home, we are still working, and handling the house, and parenting, and assisting with remote school and all this all feels heavy when you are already feeling blah.

But new research by Stanford Ph.D. candidate, Kari Liebowitz has helped me rethink winter this year and that has made for a more positive experience.

Leibowitz surveyed people including those who live in one of the most austere landscapes on earth, North of the Arctic Circle. Even with months of 24-hour darkness each year, these people were happy. Celebrating and rejoicing the winter darkness, rather than dreading it. 

Because of their mindset, how they chose to think about and celebrate the season, they experienced better moods and overall wellbeing all year long.

In the research, Leibowitz highlighted three key things that many Norwegians do regularly in the winter that create a positive and protective mindset that helps them get through. I’m tossing those into my daily routine more often and adding in an optimism exercise to help too. 

Celebrate this Season

Get outside. On a chilly winter day, a friend and I bundled up, grabbed a bottle of wine, and sat on the deck (six feet apart) with a bonfire blazing. It felt like a grand adventure and like we were acknowledging the specialness of our friendship by creating a special time.

I’ve also been more deliberate about getting outside. I take the dog out every morning, and I pause to look at the moon or notice the fog settling over the hills, or the way the rain sparkles on the trees and in the deck lights. The experience of awe is a recognized mood booster, according to research by  Dacher Keltner, and taking a moment to appreciate the beauty and marvels in nature—whether rainy or not—has helped uplift my mood and feel better about everything else. Nature has a way of doing that.

Appreciate the unique aspects that only this season can offer.  I think appreciation makes everything better because when we pause to notice and appreciate the moments of our days, we begin to see them as special. We take savor the little things. Celebrate them. 

What does that appreciation look like this winter? I appreciate the sound of the trees blowing in the wind, and I like the cracks of sun that spear through the dark clouds making rays that spread out across the sky in a vibrant graphic. I appreciate that the cold weather is driving us inside together. We cozy up to the fire in a family room draped with fairy lights, a stack of books sitting on the coffee table, fire blazing.

We are cast out during summer. To pools and golf courses. Campgrounds. The teen hanging with friends is rarely home. But these days, I’m cherishing, the winter months where we are home together and we even resurrected our game nights, and movies snuggled in blankets by the fire.

Look forward to tomorrow. We’ve added in some new activities and a couple of rituals to keep us going during the stay-at-home orders, but this winter, those have given us some things to look forward to. Something to do. A change in the static routine. And, before I drop off to sleep, I take a minute to think about something I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

When we can do that, when we can identify even one thing we are looking forward to tomorrow we actually prime our brain to discover more things to be optimistic about, according to research. That helps us choose more adaptive behaviors that keep us from getting too blue. 

I’m taking that in. Practicing that. Finding details of tomorrow that I am excited about and creating new ones if nothing piques my interest. What does that look like?

Simple stuff really. I’m taking a class on a topic I’ve always been interested in. Learning some new recipes for Asian dishes I love. We decided to turn tech off for a couple of hours late every afternoon. We put our phones down. Get off the computer,  to create art or play games or work on a jigsaw. I usually read. It’s made the evening feel calm and cozy. All of us, yes, even the teen, have ended up enjoying this tech-free time.

Not Everything is Awesome and That’s OK

I am not, however, excited about getting up before the sun when the morning feels cold and dark. I get tired of wiping down a muddy dog, and the damp that makes my joints ache.

Choosing to find the perks of winter doesn’t mean ignoring the things I don’t like. Appreciating the birds that flock to the feeder this time of year doesn’t mean I love the influx of spiders that also, retreat to the corners of the back bedroom. It just means I curate where my focus lands. And this year, I’m more intentional about turning my attention to the beauty of the season, instead of its blackness. 

And because of that, I’m feeling so much more grounded, settled, comfortable, and easy with it all. I view winter now as a coming together. A coming closer. A time to reflect, stay in, and turn inward to read and recharge. When I think of it that way—instead of something to “get through,” when I appreciate what it offers, what can only happen right now, during this time I find the days not nearly as dark.

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