Winter is coming.
For some of us, this might merely be a reference to the ever-popular TV series, Game of Thrones. For others of us, living in northern climates like Wisconsin, we might dread the fading of fall and the cold of winter setting in. In fact, some of you might be irritated that I’m bringing this up now while we still have (give or take) a month of fall left. Yet, it’s about this time, when the days become shorter and darker, that some of us get a visit from all-too-familiar depressive symptoms.
In its most marked form, these seasonal depressive symptoms are known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which affects a reported 6 percent of the US population. SAD is a type of depression displaying a recurring seasonal pattern, and affects primarily those living in northern climates. Another reported 14 percent of the adult US population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as “winter blues.”
Many different treatments of seasonal depressive symptoms are supported, ranging from light therapy to taking a daily dose of vitamin D...but what is protecting some of us from the “winter blues” altogether?
Living in Wisconsin most of my life, I have enjoyed winter as much as the other seasons. Don’t get me wrong, I have still grumbled about April snow showers and I dislike the feeling of my snot freezing when I step outside. But in general, for me, winter has meant snowmobiling, sledding, and the upcoming holidays spent cozied up indoors with family and plenty of adult beverages. This kind of association with winter Kari Leibowitz termed "a positive wintertime mindset" in her research on seasonal depressive symptoms.
Leibowitz conducted research in Tromsø, Norway, where its inhabitants experience extreme light variation between seasons (i.e. the sun doesn't rise at all from November to January), and perhaps surprisingly, where rates of seasonal depression are low. Leibowitz developed a 10-item scale to measure their wintertime mindset; She asked respondents to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like, “There are many things to enjoy about the winter,” “In the winter, I often don’t feel like doing anything at all,” and “I find the winter months dark and depressing.”
Leibowitz found that: “The people who had a positive wintertime mindset…tended to be the same people who were highly satisfied with their lives and who pursued personal growth." Furthermore, she noted that her Norwegian friends didn't report feeling like summer was superior to winter, nor did they make small talk about the cold and snow like we do here in the U.S. In fact, many of them seemed to think little of the Polar Night at all. She elaborated that her Norwegian friends would, "walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days." Now, if you're reading this, you most likely don't reside in Norway and we simply can't all be Norwegians and account for all of the cultural factors that come with that. But we can learn from them that...
if we consciously try to have a positive wintertime mindset, whether that be finding an outdoor hobby that requires snow, celebrating the beauty of winter as a season, or having an excuse to wear over-sized sweatpants and drink a gallon of hot chocolate, we might just shift our thinking.
This shift from something to be endured to something to be appreciated for its own uniqueness may be the key.
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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]