Brightening the Dark Days of Winter

wmdog in sunbeam
Everyone loves a good sunbeam.

I am tired. It’s only Monday, but I woke feeling unusually unrested this morning. I’m going to chalk it up to the return to standard time and a cloudy weekend. My activity level has plummeted in the past 8 weeks, from walking and/or biking several miles and spending hours gardening each and every day, to working in an office. I run the stairs and go outside whenever I can during the workday, but I am feeling the change in many ways… and none of them pleasant.

Winter in the northern latitudes is a challenge, a marathon, an endurance test. A few months ago, we were basking in so much sunlight that it almost seemed pointless to go to sleep, and now we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum: on a chilly, cloudy, rainy day like today, with abbreviated sunlight hours, hibernating in my pajamas sounds like a vacation.

In recent years, research on circadian rhythms has provided ample evidence that getting bright sunlight early in the day is important not only for mood and sleep, but for overall health. Although school districts are paying attention to research on teen sleep schedules, I’ve not seen them heeding the importance of actual daylight. Like many students and most first-shift workers, Mari won’t see the sun from Sunday’s sunset until Saturday’s sunrise, due to the combination of no midday recess and afterschool activities. It’s my opinion that everyone, from preschoolers to the most senior workers, needs recess, and recess needs to be outside in the brightest hours of the day. Multiple outdoor breaks would be even better.

I don’t have a solution for that, but I can share our strategies for the dark season, and I do hope that you’ll share the ways that you stay balanced through the winter.

Lots of light. This is not the time of year to be frugal with the light switches. LED bulbs provide lots of illumination for few Watts, so turn on the lights. High color temperature more closely approximates sunlight. We use bright lamps early in the day to help us awaken.

Timers. When the house is dark and cold, it’s really hard to get out of bed. Our programmable thermostat begins heating the house about 30 minutes before I get up, and I have lamps on timers around the main living area.

Earlier sleep. I sleep more in the winter. Sometimes it’s difficult to give up reading another chapter or getting some project closer to the finish line, so I try to think of the extra sleep as the luxury that it is, and enjoy the warm coziness of the flannel sheets and purring cats.

Staying warm, all the time. This may seem like common sense, but when you live in Minnesota, it’s not always easy. I feel cold easily and, once I get chilled, it’s difficult to defrost. I’m far more likely to go outside if I’m not already feeling cold, so the extra layers keep me more active. I favor silk longjohns, wool socks, and scarves – indoors. I wear a hat nearly constantly, save for my hours at work. I grew up in a warmer climate, and never knew there was anywhere that it was normal to wear a hat inside.

Cook. Soup simmering on the stove, bread baking in the oven, a warm mug of tea in my hands. When my senses are soothed by coziness, I am happier.

Escape. My last strategy is not frugal or simple, but it is highly effective: if at all possible, go somewhere warmer for a few days in January or February. By the time school spring breaks roll around, I feel like we’ve made it. The days are noticeably longer and trees are showing buds. But in the last week of January, some of the coldest weather of the year and a month after the last holiday celebrations, a few days of warm sunshine really lift spirits. We’ve only done this twice in 15 years, but both times I felt that the rest of winter was easier.

There are many simple pleasures of winter, and I love living in a climate of four seasons. When I lived in the low desert, I didn’t just miss beautiful fall days and seeing a snowy winter landscape – I missed raking leaves and shoveling snow, too, those chores that motivate many midwesterners to retire as far south as possible. So at the same time that I’m reminding myself of how we adapt to the cold and dark, I’m looking forward to watching snow fall, hearing the silence of a snowstorm, looking at the amazing crystalline snowflakes on my coat, and seeing the snow sparkle in the sunshine.


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