I grew up on the East Coast, in a place where there were real and distinct seasons. Spring was lush and lovely, whether sunny and pleasant or windy and rainy. Summers were swampy, muggy, and hot. Autumn saw the leaves turning colors before blanketing the ground, and by the time October started to roll around, it would get increasingly chilly as the days grew short.
And then Winter would arrive. Cold. Snow, just enough to incapacitate the town, but not enough to be predictable. A few snow days every year. Maybe once every few years you’d get a real blizzard, with drifts piling up several feet high, school closed for a week.
Back in those days, I thought any darkening of mood was related to being stuck inside, in the pre-internet, pre-videogame days of 3 television networks. Can’t go out and see your friends. Nothing to do. Bored, bored, bored.
I spent my college years in a remote part of New Hampshire, in a place that got so cold and dark in the Winter that the military had a cold regions research center there. The entire school closed for most of December because it was so cold. My first year there it started snowing in October, and it seemed like by November the daylight lasted about 2 hours. When I think of winter there, I think of endless overcast skies, freezing precipitation, and dirty snow on the icy ground. I remember seeing my breath freeze on my jacket collar and being so cold I had to stop in multiple buildings on my walk back to my dorm to warm up.
That was also where I found out about Seasonal Affective Disorder, which sounds like some kind of made-up thing. But it seemed to make sense. After all, why else would I be so sad? Of course, I didn’t need some kind of bright light to stare into. I just needed to toughen up.
The Winter Blues are real for many of us, usually for more than one reason.
We are our bodies, and what happens to our flesh profoundly affects our brains and our minds. During Winter, we get less daylight. The further north you go, the more extreme the shift. I visited London once in December, and in the depths of winter, the proper day is nearly nine hours shorter than it is in summer. In parts of Finland and other countries, the Sun just stops coming up at all. I don’t know how they survive.
This decrease or lack of sunlight has a profound effect on our well-being. It isn’t just warmth or Vitamin D production. Look at what happens to trees and plants and many other animals. They react strongly to the seasons, dropping leaves, hibernating, relocating. They are compelled.
The decreased sunlight causes serotonin to drop in humans, which causes depression.
Then layer in the (often) miserable weather people can experience during this time. And the lack of exercise that can come from bad weather and lack of sunlight.
You’re going to get sad, in more ways than one.
How bad are the winter blues? They’re so bad Western society had to invent Christmas to keep everyone from killing themselves in the depths of Winter.
“Everybody’s miserable, what are we going to do? I dunno, I guess we should give them something to look forward to. How about we throw a party? Big feast. Gifts. We’ll sing songs. Something.”
Many cultures have some kind of winter holiday, and I am pretty sure this is why.
So, for me, it's Christmas. If winter’s weather and lack of sunlight weren’t enough, there’s that.
What is Christmas for you? Perhaps you think of warm, snuggly sweaters, mugs of something hot, sitting around a fire, smiling with your family while you play games and share how happy and loving you are with each other. Good for you. You should probably be in a magazine or on the cover of some Milton Bradley board game.
That’s not how it was for me, at least not often. I can remember some glorious Christmas mornings as a child, opening presents and maybe getting a toy I wanted. Those were the years before I managed to convince myself that I didn’t want anything, ever, and before I forgot that I ever did once want something, anything for myself.
I remember the joy and mystery of decorating the Christmas tree, as my mother would produce box after box of strange and beautiful Christmas ornaments from family history. All of which my parents threw away in their divorce.
I feel the chest-tightening anxiety of trying to think of gifts for each of them. What does a kid with no money get people who have everything? (Pro Tip: It is not the thought that counts)
The holidays have conditioned many of us for sadness, tension, and disappointment. Every year people get trampled as Americans fight each other for some cheap crap they feel obligated to buy for someone else. The fear of failing to get a gift for someone, or worse, the wrong gift. The sheer cost of it all.
This is a time of year people have heart attacks. Slip and fall on snow and ice. It’s when Grandma finally died. It’s when Uncle Jim killed himself. It’s when you remember your parents and family screaming at each other, or not screaming at each other and silently seething or crying or drinking. Final exams. Colds and flu and snot and coughing and scratchy throats and feeling miserable. Of bitter, stinging cold and suffocating heat from radiators that won’t fucking shut off. Of water seeping into your boots as you step into slush. Of feeling the car slide as you step on the brakes.
That accumulated experience, those expectations, also color our moods. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we feel the chill air, we see the days getting shorter, and our brains tell us “here it comes”. We feel the weight of the winter blues descend on our shoulders like one of those heavy sweaters or a winter coat, and it can be just as itchy and uncomfortable.
Our modern society uses technology and culture to attempt to power through the winter, to pretend or ignore the physical reality of the days and convince us to at least act like nothing has changed. I think the dissonance between what our bodies and brains feel and what life demands creates its own problems, too.
So what can you do?
There’s a reason rich people travel during winter. They chase the sun, or go somewhere like a ski resort, where Winter is turned into a cartoon or theme park, and can be experienced at will, in a controlled environment. Travel has become unpleasant, difficult, and expensive, particularly in the depths of Winter. That might be one solution, if you can stand or afford it.
You can get one of those anti-SAD lights. My wife uses one in the winter. Do they work? Maybe!
Try to experience as much of the daylight as you can, though. That makes a big difference. Get some exercise. Don’t just hole up and eat. But listen to your body. It wants to sleep, it wants to rest. It wants to eat. Give yourself some of that. Seek a balance.
If your family situation is stressful, or even just the trip is stressful, opt out. Don’t go. They’ll get over it, and if they don’t, that says more about them than you. Stay home. Or go somewhere that is convenient and fun for you. It is your life.
Find people you like and spend time with them. That can be just yourself. I spent a few Christmases alone in my late 20s and they were great!
My wife and I started dating around this time of year, and the last two decades have helped both of us overwrite all that bad conditioning. Now, when I think of winter, I think of falling in love and spending the holidays together. Coffee. Relaxing. Christmas Eve dinner at my friend T. Jay’s. A simple Christmas day at home with the two of us. It ain’t so bad. I even look forward to it.
And remember that just around the corner is the new year, and a chance to reinvent yourself, or at least try, or at least tell yourself that you will try.
[A version of this post was read at the beginning of an episode of Music, Mindfulness, and Madness]
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