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How to be less SAD as we embrace the start of winter

Today is the first day of winter, according to the old British calendar used for centuries and still followed by many who observe the Celtic traditions of our ancestors, myself included. So, if we have as a species experienced millions of years’ worth of winters, why in our modern age do we seem to have a problem with it?

Some studies suggest that as many as 10% of people in the Northern Hemisphere experience some sort of reduced mood at this time of year, this can be as serious as depression in some, and it seems to get worse in January when the distractions of pumpkin picking, dressing up, fireworks and Christmas celebrations have all ceased. The invention of ‘Dry January’, whilst it had good intentions, seems to have exacerbated this as we enter a month of self-denial often accompanied by strict gym regimes and empty pockets.

But there are other, deeper possible explanations for this modern phenomenon.

Neuroscientific studies into happiness show that worry is a key indicator to low mood, and we have more to worry about these days (see Dean Burnett, The Happy Brain), especially in the winter. We start to take stock of the amount of money we spent in December and worry about whether we could really afford all those luxuries, we have probably gained weight, and this worries us as we think about our health and physical appearance, and we may even have the nagging worries about that ill advised candour at the work party after a few glasses too many. We have also developed a highly sophisticated guilt mechanism, originally developed to sustain community living and protect relationships, but which has evolved in our computer like modern brain areas into a forensic process of self-recrimination over every encounter we experience.

Modern society expects a lot from us, and whilst our ancestors naturally slept more and did less, we push ourselves to carry on at the same pace we could maintain during the lighter days of the summer where we could absorb more vitamin D and benefit from more natural daylight, which helps improve mood and sleep (which also affects mood). We spend less time outdoors than our ancestors did generally, but especially in winter when we hide away in heated homes with artificial light.

So what to do?

Using the wisdom of our ancestors to support us today

November was known as Blot or Blod Monath (meaning Blood Month) in large parts of Britain for many centuries up until the modern era, and this explains another reason for our reticence to embrace the cold, dark winter months. Blod Monath described the weeks when livestock was brought down from the summer pastures back into the settlements and any thought unable to survive the winter would be slaughtered. The meat, blood and skins from the animals would serve as important nutrition and shelter for the people when other food was scarce over the winter, and the bones would be burnt on huge ‘bonefires’ producing rich ash which would be dug into the earth to enrich it for the next crops.

In our sanitised world we have managed to avoid facing death unless it directly affects us, and even then we try to remain as removed as possible. Many people today are vegetarian (not an option for our ancestors who, living in northern Europe, had insufficient access to non-animal protein, something that DNA studies have shown some interesting data about) and even committed meat eaters buy their food in sanitised packs, a large minority of whom are not even aware of which animals their food comes from.

Darkness became synonymous with death, and years of control by the Roman Church only increased our fear of darkness and winter. The original thanksgiving ceremonies of our ancestors where the animals were held in gratitude for the lives lived and then given in service to the community, where the whole tribe / clan / village would gather together around the bonefires and celebrate, were gradually suppressed and the feasts of Samhain almost all died out. This is a potted history, of course, but it summarises some of what we lost with modernisation.

Mindfulness teaches us that it is in turning towards, rather than away from, a situation or feeling, that we find peace, and several studies have shown that it is more about our attitude to winter than the physical effects of shorter days that affect our mood. Scandinavian countries embrace the idea of Hygge (see the link below) which encourages us to look towards winter as a time for cosiness, rest, and comfort. Many writers encourage us to develop a winter wardrobe, full of comforting clothes which we can look forward to wearing when the season changes. This is not something our ancestors could probably manage, but then maybe they didn’t need to.

Something our ancestors did embrace though was special food and drink, something to look forward to and share with others whenever possible. Christmas cakes and mincemeat tarts, for example, are simply two of a variety of rich fruit cakes and pies made with as many nutrients as possible, including suet for the extra layer of fat needed to survive, sweetened and preserved for the winter months. We don’t need the extra layers of fat as much, having central heating, but the enjoyment of special foods cannot be over-estimated. Using our mindfulness, we can also learn to savour these experiences to increase our enjoyment even more, something people long ago would have done as a matter of course since it was not possible to just nip out and buy more.

We can also decorate our homes with candles and fairy lights, not just for Christmas but for the whole of winter. I start with a few candles lit in the evening mid-October, then a decoration for Samhain, followed later by Christmas lights, and then in January a few fairy lights and candles. Changing the colours and smells of these also adds to the novelty so we don’t get bored (our brains get bored very quickly). All of these can be observed in sustainable ways so we can also think about the planet and how it sustains us throughout the year as we light our candles.

However we choose to embrace winter, embracing the season seems to be key to boosting our happiness. As the old saying goes, ‘what we resist, persists’, and this is also now backed up by numerous brain studies which show exactly how trying to avoid a thought or circumstance involves many more brain regions and much more thought than simple acceptance of the facts. Over thinking is another route to low mood, so we can see how thinking about how lousy the winter is and trying to pretend it’s not happening and will be over soon actually involves us in more negative thought than simply finding ways of making it more inviting.

As someone with inflammatory arthritis, I am fully aware that winter brings with it many challenges around reduced mobility and energy, and increased pain and inflammation, but I am also aware that wishing things were different (when jetting off to warmer climes for months each year is not an option) is not helpful. And actually, I really like winter! I love the excuse to have long baths, read novels on my kindle with just the fairy lights on, covered with a blanket and a coffee to hand, go for winter walks (even short ones) or sit outside wrapped up in colourful woollen scarves with a hot toddy. None of these things need to cost much either, so unless we are literally struggling to put food on the table, a few adjustments will usually provide enough to make the winter more appealing.

However you choose to embrace winter this year, may you be comfortable, may you be safe, may you be joyful and may you feel at ease. And if you have days when these things seem out of reach, be kind to yourself, recognise that sometimes this time of year is hard for all sorts of reasons, and do something to nurture yourself. This too shall pass.

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