For those of us who are not “winter people,” late November through late March (or mid-April) in Ohio can be a bit rough. Slick roads, shoveling driveways, scraping car windows and trying to stay warm can be frequent headaches. Across my career as a mental health professional, I’ve worked in several states. In California, no one I knew seemed to worry too much about the “winter blues.” But in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where I’ve spent most of my working years, it is an annual challenge for many. What follows are a few ideas that may help us all make the journey into spring a little more positive, and may even find ourselves enjoying the season after all.
Connect with the season
Several of the world’s major faith groups celebrate significant events/periods in their history during this season. For me personally, as much as I hate winter for its possible stress of driving in the snow/ice, I love — absolutely love — the period of Advent through the Octave of Christmas. The music, colors, symbolism, ceremonial rites and tender yet powerful reminders of ultimate realities shine the dull off the mundane and revive meaning in every area of my life.
Even for those who may not feel comfortable entering a church, synagogue or mosque to join in a particular faith tradition’s celebrations, many cultures have imbued the winter months with meaning. And, as the incredible Austrian psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, himself a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, once wrote, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it” (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1933).
Take care of yourself and others
Another way to reduce the negative impact of winter stresses is to be deliberate about doing something, even daily, to take care of yourself and others. Simple tasks like exercising, eating well and trying a new recipe, or just calling a friend can break the monotony. Bake an extra batch of cookies and walking it over to your neighbor or invite an elderly neighbor over for a card game or movie. Host a play group of kids to play in your yard or give them (safe and fun) indoor games and have one of their parents over to help supervise (watching a child enjoy the winter weather can be infectious…but in a good way).
Of course, some people extend beyond the four walls of their home during these months to serve the community more broadly, such as serving in soup kitchens, helping supply/stock shelters and food pantries, and volunteering with various religious or civic organizations.
Embrace the twin gifts of winter: Solitude and Silence
I admit this one is particularly personal. Sometimes it is refreshing, deepening, to “learn to sit,” whether in prayer, meditation, or simple silence and stillness. Especially during a season that we often overfill with busy-ness, I find it meaningful (and necessary) to invest time into at leastshort periods of solitude and silence several times each week (though I find ‘daily’ is better). Unplug on purpose. Take ten minutes and just watch the snowfall. Pay attention to your breath. Don’t bother visualizing a sunny beach. Visualize instead perfect stillness.
Cultivate a gentle, caring heart. Seek to build your capacity to access/hold stillness on the inside and you may come to see the chaos in the department store (or toy store) checkout line in a whole new way.
Deal with cabin fever
Staying involved can help with “cabin fever.” But if you are snowed in for a couple of days, don’t have easy access to transportation, or really don’t want to go out on snow-covered roads (even to go across town to walk around WalMart), you can still reduce cabin fever by watching TV (avoid the sad, tragic stuff), exercising, calling a friend, revive the lost art of letter writing to connect with or encourage a friend, organize your drawers/cupboards, rearrange furniture, or try that new recipe (or just make one up)! To make any of these even more fun, try them with your kids!
Know when to get extra help
Some of the ideas suggested here might seem contradictory (e.g., take care of others v. embrace the solitude), but they do fit together. Part of the key is balance/moderation in all things, as well as finding your personal preferences.
If, however, you find yourself sliding down a path that is not healthy, if solitude is turning into isolation, if caution in driving is turning into a full-on phobia, if disdain for over-commercialized holidays is turning into unchecked anger, if ‘blues’ are unresponsive to remedy and seem to be turning into depression, it may be wise to get some extra help.
If a family member or close friend expresses concern about how you’re doing, get coffee together to chat and try to see what they are seeing. If you think you might need to talk to someone outside your circle of friends, or if you’re ever having thoughts of deep depression or a thought/desire to harm yourself, contact a local counseling hotline or emergency room right away.