How to manage - and enjoy - the dark weeks of winter

November 30, 2015
St. Paul MN Winter Carnival 1886
St. Paul MN Winter Carnival 1886

We’re heading into the darkest time of winter, the weeks before the Winter Solstice on December 22.  It’s a time of contrasts as so many around the world are actively preparing and excited for the Christmas and New Year holidays, and at the same time so many experience the negative effects of less light during the day.  


There are many in depth articles in the world about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the winter blues.  Here is one from Science Nordic


I have always loved the Winter Solstice because it does mark the beginning of the return to longer daylight hours.  When I lived in rural Minnesota, we celebrated with a kickass potluck that went on for hours; the food and company was divine.  Living in Minnesota I really learned to embrace winter (St. Paul Winter Carnival and Ice Palace!) and I thankfully never felt any SAD symptoms.


Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, with its gray and rainy winters, I have felt the affects more; it was never about the cold and snow, which I love and miss.  This is the first year I’ve used a light therapy lamp first thing in the morning, and I am enjoying it.  My cat finds it a bit obnoxious (10,000 lux!) and just blinks at it a lot, and it is a bit more challenging to meditate with my eyes open, but we’re both adjusting.  


I have several recommendations for making the most of winter, especially if it’s your least favorite season, and you find it does affect your mood and activity levels negatively.  Give them a spin and see what lifts your spirits and helps you make the most of it.


  1. Fresh flowers:  Once the flowers outside are gone, I get myself an inexpensive bunch of flowers each week or two.  The sight and the smell of the ‘green’ life energy of them definitely brightens my space and my outlook.  I change up the variety and color and texture as often as possible to keep things interesting and beautiful.  I’ll take a bunch and divide it between a few small vases to spread it throughout the house.  


  1. Spend time outside in nature, even if it’s dreary:  We see research again and again that being outside and doing something, anything, even for short periods of time lifts our moods and reduces our stress levels.    


  1. Get moving:  Any kind of movement or exercise will help reduce that feeling of inertia and gravitational pull of the couch.  Dancing spontaneously for three minutes, tai chi, simple stretching, more vigorous activity that gets your heart rate up, singing, playing with the kids, group sports, whatever sparks your interest and gets your blood and oxygen moving will make you feel better on all levels.  Do something daily, and increase your time at it if possible.  


  1. Music:  Play uplifting music as often as possible.  (Avoid angry or depressing lyrics.)   Hum and sing along (and don’t worry how you sound) - the physical act of both is comforting and even invigorating depending on your selections.  


  1. Socialize more:  Invite people in, visit more whether in person, phone or screen time, make an effort not to isolate even though you may want to hide in a blanket a lot.  Humans are wired for connection, and doing more during tough times helps us emotionally.


  1. Take advantage of the dark and get more sleep:  This may seem counterintuitive, but given how sleep deprived we are as a nation, use the season as a good excuse to go to bed early.  I recommend getting up at the same time as normal, however, as it keeps you in your daily routines more easily.  It’s also important not to be on the computer, tablet, or phone, or watching any television/screens at least an hour before bed.  (Yes, an hour, really.)  The light of the screens stimulate our brains and make it harder to fall asleep.  


  1. Have a big project for the winter, take some fun classes, or simply make time for creativity:  Any or all of these stimulate thinking, creativity, problem solving, and are greatly satisfying.  I have a huge box of photos that I plan to cull back dramatically.  I never look at them, there’s a lot of duplicates, and it will take quite a while to accomplish the paring down of them.  Maybe you want to convert a guest room to a studio.  Have you always wanted to learn a language or how to make  pottery?  Look up your nearest community college.  Do you have a dozen half-completed projects sitting around the house?  Make a list and decide to finish them all by spring.  Being productive in whatever form feeds your inspiration will also be very gratifying.  


  1. Take long, really warm baths:  If you live in a cold place, this is very soothing and rejuvenating, and sometimes the only way to fully warm up if you got chilled during your day.  The steam and the comfort will do wonders for you.  If you’re not a bath person, a shower will work, too.  


  1. Read and write:  Absorb yourself in good books, and take the time to write in a journal, letters to friends and family, poetry, that novel hiding inside you, whatever it may be.  


  1. Decide you love the dark of winter:  Truly, you can make the decision not to complain about it - you may be shocked at how helpful this is - and, deciding to embrace this season for all its worth and make it your own will make all the difference for you between now and spring.  



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