Raising your spirits as the temperature drops

This will be a winter unlike any other we have experienced. For those who already dislike winter, adding a pandemic to the mix can feel burdensome. As with any adverse experience, the healthiest way to approach it is to recognize and alter patterns that haven’t worked well in the past. Drawing from both the Mindfulness tradition and research done with Scandinavians (ranked among the happiest people in the world), here are some suggestions.

Tune in, recognize what you have lost, identify how you are feeling about it. Allow yourself space to grieve. This process is not the same as rumination. Rumination keeps us spinning unproductively. A mindful approach enables us to become more fully aware of our emotional response to a situation, as well as where that response resides in our body. Do you feel heaviness in your chest? Tightness in your shoulders? A knot in your stomach? Breathe into that area and see if you can let those sensations subside a bit. Above all, don’t ignore your feelings! Those who do so are at the highest risk of emotional and physical distress.

If you rehearse statements such as, “I hate winter,” your mind becomes stuck and you lose moment-to-moment awareness. When that occurs, we function in autopilot and lose opportunities for joy or delight that might lift our spirits. A psychologist who studied seasonal affective disorder in Tromso, Norway – 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle – determined that their residents have unusually low rates of seasonal depression. She identified what she termed, “positive wintertime mind-set.” Rather than facing winter with a sense of dread, the residents of Tromso view it as a season of opportunities for enjoyment and fulfillment – both outside and inside.

Find moments to shift from the negative mantras that keep your mind stuck to opportunities for present-centered awareness. Bundle up and go outside, if only for 10 minutes. Use all of your senses to notice the experience. What do you see? Hear? Smell? How does the air feel on your skin? (Be descriptive. Rather than saying the air feels “lousy,” describe the sensations in specific terms.) If it’s snowing, taste the snow, as you might have done when you were a child. The Director of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen refers to the benefits of outdoor time as an experience that releases “outdoorphins.” He regards time outdoors as a form of self-care because of the many mental health benefits people experience.

We are social creatures. While safety during a pandemic is critical, the solution is not to self-isolate. This can cause/increase depression and anxiety, which are already hallmarks of this pandemic. Find ways to stay in touch, either virtually or in-person. If in-person, consider creating a “bubble” with yourself and one or two others who are also essentially quarantining. If you can’t” bubble,” or don’t want to limit yourself to one or two people, try getting together outside (see next paragraph). 

Bundle up and play summer games during the winter: bean bag toss, croquet, frisbee. Revive a childhood game in all its silliness. When was the last time you played “3 Around the House” or “Kick the Can?” Better yet, wait until it’s dark and play with headlamps or flashlights. Sit around a fire. You may not last for hours as you would in the summer, but appreciate the warmth of the fire in contrast to the chill of the air. Find cozy indoor winter activities: light a candle or a fire in the fireplace, wrap yourself in a blanket, drink cocoa, read a book, play a game. Give yourself the time and space to move more fully into the experience of indoor coziness when it is dark and cold outside.

Find safe ways to engage in volunteerism. The need is enormous, and there are benefits to you as well, making this a win/win. Altruism releases “happy hormones,” such as oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. These hormones boost our mood. Altruism also diminishes our sense of isolation, reminding us that we are part of a larger whole. 

This is someone who can help remind you to STOP and notice what is present in the moment; someone who can encourage you to find moments of lightness or delight. Be a “winter ambassador” for someone else. Encouraging others can remind us of what we are trying to teach ourselves.

Martha Jackson Oppeneer, D.Min., LMFT