Joyful Journeys through June: On Welcoming Winter Wellness
Winter. Love it or loathe it? Do you flourish in winter or do you find yourself floundering? Do you thrive during the colder months or just survive? I love winter, usually. There are so many things I love about it. And I love all the seasons for their distinctive flavours. They are all to be enjoyed. In winter I am fortunate to have a warm house, because for those in cold houses or on low incomes, winter can be very challenging. The lovely nursing student that is on placement with us at the moment informed me that the average temperature in a student house here is 3 degrees! She said that her student flat was positively tropical in comparison, at 11 degrees! Brrr. Sadly NZ is not known for it’s warm housing.
Much is talked about staying physically well in winter. Staving off the colds and flus. My husband is quite susceptible to the common winter cold. However, he refuses any traditional remedies other than vitamin P (paracetamol!). And what about our mental health? Sometimes this can take a battering in winter too. I haven’t always relished every winter. The city that we live in is not known for it’s wonderful weather (although at the moment we can’t complain as we have had simply stunning days). Often the weather here can be a little grim. Even Billy Connolly jokes about the weather in Dunedin! Dreary Dunedin where it is often cold and grey. Snow such as we had last week was such a gift. I’ve never seen my children bounce out of bed and get dressed so quickly as when it is snowing. And even I bounce out of bed when it is snowing (whereas usually I require at least one coffee before I am human in the mornings). But most winter days we don’t have snow.
The first winter we had here six years ago was a shock. It rained for nineteen days in a row, and being at home with a wee one, no other support around and a husband who was working crazy hours, I experienced the winter blues. Have you ever experienced the winter blues? What about Seasonal Affective Disorder? This is snow joke. I have friends who suffer from this. Seasonal depression chartacterized by the usual depressive symptoms, sleeplessness, or excessive sleepiness, increased appetite or reduced appetite, feeling tired, lethargic, perhaps tearful and down, reduced motivation, and poor concentration. Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is thought to be caused by a lack of sunlight over the cold winter months and symptoms usually dissapate in spring. Six to 10 percent of the population in colder climates suffer from SAD. We all have a biological clock (or circadian rhythm) which responds to light. Our circadian rhythm helps our bodies know when to be asleep and when to be awake. For some of us, however, that biological clock responds quite a bit differently in the winter when the sun goes down early and rises late. The exact mechanisms are unknown, but it seems to relate to how the hormone melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin work in our bodies in response to these light cues. Whether someone develops SAD is dependent on genetic susceptibility and whether one lives in a cold climate (ie, distance from the equator). jTo treat SAD, exercise has been found to be helpful as it is for mild to moderate depression all year round. Light treatment is often used successfully, as are some types of anti-depressants (SSRI’s such as fluoxetine).
But if you are like me and sometimes experience the winter blues, here are 10 strategies for flourishing and thriving in winter.
1. Lighten up with Vitamin D
Well it may be a placebo, but I’ve found that taking vitamin D can improve my general energy levels and overall functioning in winter. Many others I know swear by it too. The scientific debate rages over how much vitamin D an individual needs, but if you live in a colder climate, the chances are that you could be deficient.
My husband and son are the runners in the family. The only run I do is the school and kindy run, and that isn’t running, it’s driving! Recently we won enough points in a weetbix promotion to redeem for a three month gym membership. Which would be great if I liked the gym, but I don’t, and my husband doesn’t have time. But I love walking. Sometimes we just need to ‘lighten up’ and get some sunshine (when there is some available) with a walk outside. I’ve been known to give zumba a go too. It is great fun.
The effects of wearing colour in winter have been well documented. Don’t you find that if you wear a cheerful colour it lifts your spirits? Rich warm reds, deep purples, sunny yellows? While wearing bright colours will not prevent SAD which is largely caused by a lack of sunlight, there has been plenty of research linking mood to colour.
4. Get your craft on. There has also been research linking crafting to better mental health. Winter is such a nice time to plan some crafting, whether it is scrapbooking by the fire, that sewing project you’ve been meaning to get around to, knitting a jersey or crafting with the kids. What about getting together with some friends and having a little crafting group? It’s hard to find a time that suits everyone I know. Crafting helps our minds to rest. Crafting improves our attention span and boosts our motivation. Creating something, even if something small, gives us a sense of accomplishment and a little self-esteem boost. If you have young children, it can be hard to find the time with everything else on one’s echedule, but it can just be a little project, something that is realistically manageable (perhaps not trying to complete a quilt from start to finish in a week!).
5. Planning some family fun.
Planning a little fun and something to look forward can be helpful in winter. And these activities can be fabulously frugal. I’m not really a board game fan. I’d much rather read, watch a movie or craft. But my oldest children love board games. How about hosting a family games night? The advantage of a games night over other forms of entertainment is that people actually have to interact with one another!
Or what about a Midwinter Movie Marathon? We’ve never tried this, but it might be fun. Commence the marathon at one family’s house and watch a film and have lunch. Then walk to the next house and watch another film. Then walk to the next house for dinner and a final film. Walking between homes can be the exercise that breaks up the sitting around. You could even have a kid’s movie in one room and a film for the grown-ups in another.
For several years now we have had a Mid-winter Christmas Dinner at the end of June. This seems like a foreign concept to those living in the Northern Hemisphere who enjoy a wintery christmas. For my english in-laws, a summery christmas is a little peculiar. Because we miss out on a white christmas, we have a mid-winter christmas dinner, complete with a roast, Christmas pudding, some christmas music, candles and we might have $2 secret santa gifts for the kids.
Or what about real hot chocolates by the fire with toasted marshmallows? Because sometimes it’s the little treats that keep us going in winter.
6. Reading. Finding the time to read at the moment is difficult for me, but winter is a great time to read. What about having a pyjama day on the weekend where the whole family stays in pyjamas all day and reads. I have so many books that I want to read. I’ve joined ‘The Motherhood and Jane Austen Book Club’. This book club aims to read the Jane Austen novels and view them through the lense of motherhood. Now I need to find time to re-read the novels so that I will have something interesting to contribute to the discussions. They have a facebook page if you are interested in joining.
7. Get enough sleep. This one goes without saying, but is easier said than done if you have smallies.
8. Eat nutricious healthy food. I love winter cooking. Casseroles in the slow cooker and soup-erb soups. Chicken pie, curries and other winter warmers. I’m a slow learner when it comes to slow cookers as I have only just discovered them. But they are a mum’s best friend, especially if your children are little. And they are great in winter. It can be tempting in winter to have lots of carbohydrate laden comfort food. But it’s not rocket science that we feel better when we eat less processed food and more fruits and vegetables. I know that I feel better when I try to eat this way. I don’t always succeed and I have a weakness for cheese rolls. They are a southern classic and they are much more than just a cheese toasted sandwich. Below is a recipe from the cafe in Dunedin that won the cheese roll awards (yes they have awards and competitions for everything these days).And who could forget winter puddings? Yes I’ve just preached about the value of healthy food in winter. About not everloading on sugar and carbohydrates. But to contradict myself, the ocassional winter pudding can be a nice treat. Rice pudding made in the slow cooker or my personal favourite – sticky date pudding with butterscotch sauce.
9. Constructive attitude adjustment. Do you ever find that your attitude needs a warrant of fitness? I know that mine does. Because it’s not our circumstances but how we think about them that affects our mindset. And some of us like me, just think far too much. Cultivating the attitude of gratitude is a good place to start. I’m working on counting my winter blessings. Today I’m thankful that it is a beautiful sunny winter day.
10. Seek social support. If you or someone you love is suffering from the winter blues or even SAD, seek help. Talk to a friend or a counsellor. But be careful about self-labelling yourself with ‘winter blues’. And see your doctor, because sometimes winter blues or SAD symptoms can mimic other health problems. There are treatments and strategies can help. You don’t need to suffer in silence. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if there was no stigma attached to any form of psychological or emotional distress?