Escaping the midwinter blues

Winter city street, people crossing in snow and slush

In my last blog post, Now is the winter, I talked about why I like winter and also why it’s a necessary season. On reading the article, a friend commented that while she was born in winter, she doesn’t care much for it, because it’s not so much snow. Just rain and/or cold.

Okay, I get that. When I lived in Sweden or Iowa, if snow fell in November, there was a chance that it wouldn’t actually be gone until March. Late March at that. Most years that was not the case, but it was definitely a possibility.

Still, it was more often a bare Christmas than a white Christmas.

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”

Anne Bradstreet

With shorter days in winter, it can certainly seem like it’s dragging on forever. That feeling especially tends to hit in January or February.

Maybe something to do with the anticipation of the holidays of Christmas and New Year being gone. December is also often a time of multiple parties and gatherings. Time to see friends and family you may not see much at all the rest of the year.

Then it’s January 2nd and all that is over. Nothing much to look forward to until the elusive spring when days finally are longer and warmer. So we drag our feet around the house. Get a bit of cabin fever. A lot cabin fever if there’s a heavy snow or several days of rain. It’s the midwinter blues. 

Whatever the cause, how do we beat midwinter blues? When each day feels like one more in an endless row of dreary bouts of ill-tempered weather?

There’s good evidence that less daylight has a lot to do with winter moodiness. Makes sense. After all, if sunrise is around 8:30am and sunset is before 4pm (as it is in southern Sweden), that means you could go all workweek and never see daylight where you live. Leave for work in the dark, come home in the dark. 

I’ve been fortunate to spend much of my working life in a mixture of indoors and outdoors. But for many people, work means indoors with banks of fluorescent lights spreading their greenish glow and nary a bit of actual daylight. That’s enough to make a person, if not all out depressed, then at least a bit moody and gloomy.

Then of course if the few daylight hours are cloudy, that just makes things more depressing.

“I pray this winter be gentle and kind–a season of rest from the wheel of the mind.”

John Geddes

Here are 9 things we can do to cheer up winter a bit and beat the blues:

Soak up daylight

This is the biggie. To combat midwinter blues, do get as much daylight as you can. 

I know that means going outside. Into the cold. But daylight is good for us and does wonders for the spirit. So it’s worth putting on a few layers to then get outside and spend as much time as you can outside.

I walk about 4 miles daily. Pretty much no matter what the weather is. I have a raincoat and boots for rainy days. I have warm layers for cold days. Even a day with windchills down to 0° isn’t bad if you’re dressed right. During the recent arctic blast, I saw video of joggers in Chicago out in that subzero weather still getting their exercise in. 

While inside, situate yourself near windows. Preferably toward the south to get as much daylight (and sunshine) as possible. That natural light will cheer you up and help your body stay in touch with a proper day/night cycle.

Get outside

This goes with soaking up daylight. Getting outside is good for us any time of the year and especially at those times when we’re likely to feel all cooped up sitting inside because the weather isn’t so nice outside. 

I’m obviously not talking about being crazy and going outside in -50° windchill. That would be nuts. But when  we regularly spend time outdoors, then having to stay inside for a day or two when the weather gets really bad isn’t a huge burden.

Spending time outside also gets our bodies used to the outside environment. On a cold morning recently I walked outside with a couple friends who spend their working time in offices. One of them pulled his coat closer against the cold and commented that he didn’t understand how people can manage working outside in cold weather all day long. Because he was already getting cold just walking from a building to the car.

I get that. I’ve worked outdoors throughout the winter in Sweden and Iowa. It gets cold. Really cold. But I also found that working and being outside all day, I actually wore less clothing than if I just walked outside for a little while. And I felt just fine. Because doing physical work is quite different from a quick walk to a car. Plus, working outside regularly, my body was used to it.

Point is, don’t be afraid to get outside. Even in winter. It’s good for you and your body will get used to it.

Get a cat or a dog

Having someone to take care of, forces us to focus beyond ourselves. And it’s company.

A cat or dog also doesn’t care what the weather is outside. They still want food and petting. And said dog will require walking “to take care of business”. Which gets you outside too.

A friend posted a video online of how their dog on a snowy day dashed out into the winter wonderland to pick up the paper and brought it back to the happy owner who now didn’t have to go outside at all. That’s not what I’m talking about. You need to get outside with Fido.

Turn on the music

Music has a huge impact on our emotional state and mood. So make a conscious choice to listen to music that’s engaging and uplifting for you. Sometimes that means listening to my summer  playlist in the dead of winter. Just to mentally fly away to sunny days, warm water and fun at the beach. 

Add lights around your home

Visit almost any home in Sweden during the winter months and you’ll find a plethora of extra lights. Lights in the windows add bright spots and turn what would be a hole into dark and gloom outside into a spot of light and beauty. Placing and turning on those lights is also an intentional act that declares that you want brightness. And it feels comfortable. 

Friends “up north” have lights strung on the railing of their deck and put a small lit Christmas tree in the middle of the table on that deck. All this is right outside a sliding glass door. So turning on those lights creates a friendly environment out there, even when covered in snow and gives them something pretty to look at as they move about inside the room.

Bring out more color in your environment

Scandinavian design prominently features bold colors. Because a spot of color cheers you up and brightens your day. We don’t have to bury ourselves under black and taupe just because it’s winter. 

Keep in touch with friends

When the weather isn’t so nice and daylight hours are fewer, it’s tempting to not make the effort to connect with friends and family. After all, if there’s a snowstorm coming in, or a week of rain forecast, why make plans to get together? It’s probably not going to happen. Then again, it might. So make plans and do venture out. If things don’t work out, you can always reschedule.

Withdrawing socially is not a recipe for mental health at any time of the year. But especially not when the weather seems to conspire to isolate us.

We now have more ways to connect than ever before in human history. So if we can’t get together in person, we can get on the phone or a video conversation. Not exactly the same as in person, but it does connect us. And lets us share what’s going on with each other.

Plant flowers

There’s nothing for forecasting the coming of spring like having some tender green shoots poke through the ground. When I see daffodils raising their green blades, it doesn’t matter if there is still snow on the ground (or a forecast of much more to come). I know spring is coming.

You may not have a garden. A container on a balcony can serve as that end-of-winter predictor just as well. 

Or plan outdoor walks to take you to an area with plantings, so you can see buds start to form on trees and bushes and flowers poke through the ground.

Be intentional

The midwinter blues, once landed, won’t dissolve themselves. But we choose how we treat each new day: With anticipation or with dread and gloom. Choose to seek the things that spark joy and treasure them. Some days that will feel like a losing battle, but even a rainy day holds treasures. If we just look for them.  

“Sometimes our fate resembles a fruit tree in winter. Who would think that those branches would turn green again and blossom, but we hope it, we know it.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Winter is a necessary part of the year. It’s part of the growing cycle. The world looks bare and dead, but below the surface, a new growing season is gathering momentum. We can let winter be a recharge time for ourselves as well. We can make the most of the change in pace it represents and look forward to a world unleashed in spring that is just around the corner.

All too often, when faced with something we don’t like or enjoy, we respond by resistance or muddling through. But there’s a journey to be savored. One that can enrich us. Because of winter’s challenges, we are stronger and we appreciate the gentleness and warmth of other seasons so much more.

Finally, none of this is intended to replace seeing a medical professional if you are seriously unable to function. Depression is a very real thing and can be debilitating. Please seek help if you really can’t get moving and life feels overwhelming. That goes for any season of the year.

Winter may never be your favorite season. That’s okay. It’s still possible to find things about it to like. I wouldn’t want to live in a land with perpetual winter. But I treasure it as it comes around. Enjoy doing things that can only be done in winter. And when I go walking in subzero winds, I am thankful that I at least that day don’t have to worry about getting a heatstroke from exercising outdoors, like in the high of summer.

“The hard soil and four months of snow make the inhabitants of the northern temperate zone wiser and abler than his fellow who enjoys the fixed smile of the tropics.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson