It is stupid cold outside: a breathtaking -11°F. For the lucky uninitiated, at this frigidity, nose hairs freeze and stiffen as you breathe in. You don’t dare cry outdoors, even if you’re late for work and your car door is frozen shut. Lettuce leaves freeze in the time it takes to walk from the grocery to your car.
I grew up in a dry land close to the sun where buying snow boots is more wishful thinking than preparedness. I am not blessed with the fortitude of Northern peoples to withstand six months of cold, dark hell. I don’t think many of them are blessed with it either; I know many pale skinned Northerners who struggle with Winter’s long, cold reign. I remember my first northern winter and thinking, “This is why these people drink so much.” (It also could have been because it was my freshman year in college, but I digress.) By February, the darkness and chill seep into my bones and despair sets in. It will not end for another 6-8 weeks and I begin to be mentally unwell.
As being constantly drunk for 6 weeks is not an option, I have found other ways of coping. My favorites are cheap and effective. Of course, I forget to do them and end up huddled against the radiator, eating mashed potatoes and weeping. But, when I remember to do them, they help.
Avoid the Idiot Box
I watch very little TV and few movies- 2-3 hours a week, at most. Empirical data from myself and children convinced me that television is bad for humans. Children’s behavior and attitudes are never better after watching TV; they are usually worse. If I consume more than 3 hours of TV within a couple of days, I am noticeably more anxious and unhappy. It makes my sleep less restful. Most TV is crap anyway. (Whatever show I currently love is excepted, of course.)
Escapism has its place in a northern winter, but TV for TV’s sake is a poor escape. It puts a mind in stasis. There have been times when I can’t even remember what I watched. When I turn the box off, my mind reverts to the same stressed, pent up state it was in before, except with a liberal sprinkling of anxiety on top.
Find other escapes if TV affects you negatively. Listen to podcasts/music/audiobooks. Go to bed. Talk to someone. Practice a hobby. Sort the socks. Do something besides sit in front of the TV/Hulu/Netflix.
Fill’er up with Happy
Last winter, I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire, the first book in the Game of Thrones series. What a terrible decision- so much cold, and snow, and blood, and bloody snow. I could handle the gore; it was the snow, or Snow, that got me. I put it down until April.
In the depths of the winter that has already come, I seek out pleasing, diversions- silly British TV shows (watched in small doses,) audiobooks by comedians, or engrossing fiction or biographies in which winter is not a character and children don’t die.
Eat Live Things
When the snow flies, I am drawn to rich, fatty, carbohydrates and wine. However, when I haven’t felt the sun in months and winter’s cold fingers are tightening around my chest, I feel better when I eat some raw foods. The problem is that raw foods, like me in February, are always cold, and I only want warm things. Salad is nearly impossible to make desirable this time of year. Even the salty charms of feta cheese cannot draw me to a bowl of chilled vegetable. Bacon must be enlisted in a 1:1 ratio to lettuce to tempt me at all.
In winter, I try to serve something raw at each dinner: sugar snap peas, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, jicama, even fruit. I serve green leaves like a supplement, not a side dish. Everyone gets a pinch of fresh spinach leaves next to their vitamins, no matter what else is for dinner.
The easiest way to dose my family with raw veg in the winter is to juice them (the veg, not the family.) I always forget to do this until late winter when we all start getting sick. Children love to use the juicer and will suck down a carrot/orange/romaine blend without complaint. It tastes like sweet life in the bitterness of March.
Take Some Vitamin D
Because I haven’t made any of my own since October and will not do so again until April.
Let the Sunshine In
In the frigid north, it is colder when the sun is out. Clouds blanket the city, holding warmth in, but blue skies strip away warmth. When I can find a window with the sun streaming in, I stand there with the golden light filling my eyes, even for a minute. It’s better than nothing.
Sweat & Exercise
I can almost see your eyes rolling. I know; it’s a bit of a bummer. Pulling on spandex pants after a cold Christmas does not seem likely to
improve one’s mood. Avoid the full-length mirrors and do it anyway. Or just do it in your house and wear your PJ. Who cares? Getting the blood moving reminds me that I am alive, even if the weather outside is deadly.
Winter is what got me started working out seriously. One February at 11:30 pm, I was paying a crew of men a revolting hourly sum to melt the 1’ ice dams off my roof. I was running out of money and there was still one damn dam to go. Stressed, worried by the water dripping down my inside walls, and a little furious at the whole situation, I decided to wear myself out doing mountain climbers- just to calm down. Gasping for breath and lying on the floor 4 minutes later, I was exhausted, but my mental state was much better, and I was a little bit hooked.
Now, I run for my mental health as much as for my physical health. There is something about the combination of rhythmic movement, sweat, a half an hour without someone yelling, “Mom!”, and the endorphins, that raise my mood more than anything else. Oh, the sweet endorphins. Sometimes, I run just for the endorphins. Being a user of these chemicals, I know that I need to run for 28 minutes to get a good hit, and I feel them hit my bloodstream. They are effective, legal, and free.
Exercise is also one of the only times I am actually warm during the winter. At the moment, I am writing this with a down comforter over my head and shoulders, and a space heater aimed at me. I walk around my house in shoes, sweater, hat, and sometimes a scarf for months at a time. Getting hot and sweaty, whether through exercise or sauna, feels so good during the cold months- bringing blood to the surface and opening pores that otherwise won’t open again until May. Even if you don’t want to P90X (and I’m right there with you,) getting in a steam room will give you the same glow without all the burpees. It’s a small wonder that the Finns love their saunas. Although, I am not game for the jump in a frozen lake afterward- madness.
Warmth in Numbers
February/March is a social dead time. Holidays are over; the spring event season has yet to begin, and no one is thinking of barbeques or cocktail parties. People are hunkered down, waiting for Spring. If I can get myself invited to or arrange social gatherings with beloved and stimulating people, my heart warms and life is good.
When struggling with seasonal depression, I medicate with music. I choose it like a prescription drug- in accordance with what I need and what it can provide. It’s most effective when I can turn it up, close my eyes, and give it my full attention- so, when small people are asleep. This time of year, I take a lot of Haydn, early to mid Beethoven, Mumford and Sons, Cake, and occasional Metallica, AC/DC, Pink, and Randy Travis. I must be careful with those last ones; it’s easy to build up a tolerance and they quickly lose their effectiveness.
Bring Me [to] a Shrubbery!
I always forget this one and must be reminded of it by friends. In my city, we have a wonderful conservatory full of tropical trees, plants and lots of loamy smelling humidity. It is a relief to the skin and the senses to go in there and smell the plants, the damp earth, and see living horticulture. I will fill out a comment card the next time I go. I’ll suggest that they put deck chairs out in sunny spots and people can rent them by the hour and take the air and light for their health.
If you have access to an indoor greenspace- zoos, greenhouses, conservatories, go. Your skin and your mood will thank you.
That’s my arsenal. On occasion, it must all be employed at once to meet my mental health needs. I’m sure I’d be a good candidate for a light therapy lamp, but I haven’t looked into it. How do you cope with the cold, dark, icy white horror that is a Northern winter? I need all the help I can get… as long as it’s cheap and easy, or you’re paying.