We are at the time of year when our little place on the planet tilts away from the sun. Professionals increasingly report that they are impacted by the blues at the very thought of winter. Fatigue and reduced motivation, hallmarks of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), are already beginning to surface. We can dread it or deal with it. What if you have to get up before the sun and commute into a job that doesn’t release you until well after the sun sets? Going out in the cold can be a dismal business if you’re not prepared for it (and even if you are).
I dug out an old list from my days in clinical practice to throw into the mix of your planning for the season. It made me laugh to see that several of them are contradictory. For instance the original list included both “hole up” and “go outside,” which suggests to me that you might want to develop—out of your own self-awareness—your personal list of tactics and get conscientious about putting them in place against the coming winter.
First, there are the tried and true techniques for coping. Read GadgetBoy’s reviews and buy some good light therapy. Your understanding doctor may prescribe a seasonal anti-depressant to help stabilize you through the dark months. She may also suggest a dose of Vitamin D, which is purported to help. Since I slather with sunscreen, I take the Big D year-round. And she will almost certainly tell you to watch your diet, since carb-craving leads to a vicious cycle of eating precisely the kinds of foods that will dull your energy levels. Stocking the house with healthy snacks in advance of the blues will help head off those cravings.
Create a play list. Music has always been a huge game-changer for me; one of my favorite playlists is called “Cheer up, bitch,” (which is not meant to be at all self-denigrating, but a reminder that the interpretation of my fate is in my hands). Write to me and I’ll happily share my Spotify list with you, although I suspect you already know precisely which music you find irresistible. Then dance. Even if you’re self-conscious about your skills, the combination of music and movement elevates your dopamine and pushes it through your system.
Create a play list of sad songs, too. My other favorite list is called “The Break-Up Blues” and it’s basically a compendium of the most melancholy tunes ever sung. The twang of a steel guitar, the cry-break in Dwight Yoakum’s betrayed wail, the soaring pain in Alison Krause’s perfect voice, Leonard Cohen’s raspy sorrow…I listen to them, curled up with a cup a cocoa and wallow. Then I get up and go on, comforted in the awareness that I am not alone in my mournful human condition.
Any sort of physical exercise helps, so set up occasions for going to the gym with either a buddy or a trainer, either of whom can help haul you over the lip of your bleakness. You’re less likely to miss the gym outing if you’ve planned to go with a friend or actually paid someone to cheerfully put you through the paces.
Sex is a great bummer-blaster. Embrace your cave and your sweetie. Plan an erotic in-house adventure with someone you love (or maybe just someone you dig a lot), complete with candles and winter shadows. That lighting is so much better for the body image than that raw sunlight of summer!
Carefully shop for your cold-weather gear. Make sure your winter jacket is not just toasty, but also cheers you up (splurge on a new red or hot pink one, if you can, and donate your more-dreary one to the local coat drive now, when they are starting to collect them. If you’re warm enough to truly face the winter conditions, you’ll be happier. Buy a stupid hat. I have a collection of hats with cat or monkey ears and I find that when I walk down the street wearing one everyone grins at me. For a long time I commented on how friendly New Yorkers were in the winter until someone pointed out to me that they were probably just laughing at my hat. I didn’t care much about the reason they were smiling at me, frankly.
Plan a sunny holiday now for late in the winter season. We know that the months of January, February or March are when seasonal affective disorder reaches the peak of its pow. 2010 research out of Holland—land of long winters and happy spring tulips—suggested that milking the anticipation of the sunny get-away was better for our happiness quotient than the actual getting away! So plan accordingly. Leave the brochures and travel posters around the house. Then when you get home, the anticipation of spring can help temper your mood for the rest of the season.
Commit to a no-complaining policy. Late at night during one of those epic snowstorms last winter, I walked past a doorman and made a comment on the glorious crowd of snowflakes pelting us. His response was, “Ugh. What terrible weather.” Mood smasher. Don’t be that guy, even if you do have to keep the walks clear. There are great theories called fake it ’til you make it that suggest it is worth it to be of good cheer, even fake cheer.
Hike into the dreary landscape and actively spot the beauty in the starkness. In an urban environment, that can be tough because the snow goes to unforgiving slush in about four minutes and the puddles become one more assault weapon for the cab drivers. But there are still moments of beauty. When I lived a more rural life, I used to go out into my bleak snow-covered garden and imagine what was under that frozen scene. Then I’d go inside with a pile of stashed seed catalogs and immerse myself in the heartening activity of garden planning.
Make something, especially something for someone else—knit funky socks, bake apple crisp, simmer a rich stew, paint a postcard—and either give it away (a cheer-up tactic by itself) or invite someone over to share. If you’re low on inspiration, check out Pinterest.
Autumn is a time of year that has long been linked to mortality because winter is close on its heels. The changing seasons remind us of the temporary nature of our own lives. With that comes the urge to savor all the moments, even the less sunny ones. There is something bittersweet in understanding that everything changes, everything ends. But everything begins, also. And some things endure deeply. Don’t dismiss the heartbreak of the up-coming season, but don’t lose the beauty of it. Here’s a tiny slice of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem to get you started.
The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.