A Mind of Winter

Tips to get through the darkest time of the year.

Posted Dec 14, 2019

Pexels/David McEachan
Source: Pexels/David McEachan

What's supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year" doesn't feel that way for many.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a special form of depression that peaks as we move into the darkest portions of the year. Affecting an estimated 10 million Americans, and another 10 to 20 percent in a milder form, these "winter blues" sap our energy, motivation, and desire to be around friends and family.

Craving carbs and sleeping more, we're just not ourselves. Pun intended—we lose the lightness that we rely on at other times of year. 

And it's worse if we live in places with less actual light. Consider this: 9 percent of those living in Alaska or New England qualify for SAD, compared to only 1 percent in the Sunshine State of Florida.

We're also at greatest risk if we're younger, female, or have a family history of depression. Most people with SAD have their first onset between the ages of 18 and 30. Even in Alaska, SAD was found to be more prevalent in individuals younger than 40. Compared to men, women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD. Finally, people who have a close family member with depression are 55 percent more likely to be diagnosed with it.

Here are some tips to help us all get through this darkest time a little easier. 

1. Don't let the songs fool you.

While the holidays can be a wonderful time in so many ways, it can also put an unnatural sense of pressure and guilt on those who aren't feeling good. We know that stifling negative emotions is not good for us, and that the secondary shame we feel only makes things worse.

Let yourself off the hook, and remember that it's okay and quite natural to feel low energy and grumpy. This doesn't mean you're a Scrooge; it means you're human.

2. Harvest as much of the scarce light as you can.

Winter light is precious and fades fast—we have to treat it like gold amidst the paydirt of the season’s darkness. It's important to bundle up and get out there to take advantage of it and bask in it as if we were sunbathing in summer. As Wallace Stevens said in his poem “The Snow Man," we must learn to have a “mind of winter” and notice the "distant glitter of the January sun."

So make sure to get out there early, and take "light breaks" during the day to make sure you get the Vitamin D you need.

3. Notice the beauty of the winter light.

Winter light is special light—it elongates the world and, if there's snow, reflects in a way that's like no other time of year. It’s so important to appreciate the magic of this light while you walk or ski across the landscape. Again, cultivate this "mind of winter" to tap into its own special brand of magic.

4. You are not alone in hibernating.

Remember, we’re all in this together. The lengthening shadows of winter make everyone want to hibernate. Rather than dividing or demoralizing us, this connects us to everything in nature, making us part of something so much bigger. 

5. Nurture those small lights.

The "dying of the light," to quote Dylan Thomas's famous poem, naturally makes us think about mortality, loss, and failure, and it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by its raw intensity. However, even the smallest amount of light can carry such power at this time. 

Like so many of the winter holidays of light, winter can be a beautiful reflection of the psyche’s capacity to hold on to hope even in the darkest of times. We must nurture those small lights, and notice how powerful they are, especially now.

6. Refill the well and savor the warmth.

Rather than fight winter, join it! Cuddle up with a good book and use this time to refill the well. Savor the time inside to catch up on projects you’ve long since put off.

7. Allow snow to be your meditation.

Snow reminds us of the value of a humble, Zen-like grace. Wendell Berry’s haiku says it best:

“Suppose we did our work

like the snow, quietly, quietly.

Leaving nothing out.”

There's so much to learn from the peaceful and enveloping persistence of the snow. Learn to see it as a motivator, and not just a nuisance that needs to be cleared.

Most of all, embrace the coldness and openness of the winter as one does the silence of meditation. As Stevens concludes:

"become the listener, who listens in the snow

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."