World: Walk, don’t overwork, and watch the carbs: how to beat the winter dread

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It’s only now, when we have some distance from it, that we can reckon with last winter: five months of gloom, seclusion and burnout in which almost the entire country felt miserable. Against a background of a rising death toll, exhausted health workers and gross governmental incompetence – not to mention a cancelled Christmas – we were tasked with a third go at making the most of a bad situation.

I remember the moment it really got to me. It was New Year’s Eve. I’d just had a terrible and prolonged breakup, and a few days earlier had moved out of the London flat I had shared with my ex for five years. House-sitting, alone, was not the kind of New Year bash I’d envisioned, but at least I could take some solace in the thought that no one else was having much fun.

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Another single friend and I had planned to visit a couple’s home for a tiny – admittedly rule-breaking – dinner, so we wouldn’t be alone as the countdown came. But at 4pm that day, I got the call: one of our party had just watched the viral video of a UCL intensive care doctor speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live. He had said anyone who went out on New Year’s Eve would have blood on their hands.

“Sure,” I said, lip quivering like a toddler’s as I was told the dinner was off, “glad we’re doing the right thing.” I put the phone down and realised I was horrified at the prospect of spending the night alone.

Winter – which apparently comes every December – is something we still seem totally unprepared for

Lockdown and winter had formed a pernicious partnership. Together they aggravated every other malady in life – overwork, illness, cold, death, loneliness, heartbreak – breathing a frosty wind over any attempts to try to mitigate the misery. A disease that insisted we stay outdoors as much as possible was bound to strike its biggest psychological blows when we felt trapped indoors.

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As winter returns, you can sense the trepidation. Even if the rules in the UK stay the same, we know that things won’t get back to normal this Christmas. Many offices have decided to cancel or downscale their staff parties, and now there’s the new Omicron variant to contend with. One of the leading spokespeople for the delivery industry, David Jinks of ParcelHero, has described Christmas shortages as “a certainty”. Even Tory MP David Morris has warned that we could be facing a new “winter of discontent”.

For many of us, our anxiety about and inability to deal with winter is due to the fact that, despite its inevitability, we seem totally unprepared for it each year. Is there a way to reframe this period as something more positive – or even embrace it?

Tromsø, northern Norway: for two months a year the sun never rises, yet people living there tend to thrive. Photograph: Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Tromsø, northern Norway: for two months a year the sun never rises, yet people living there tend to thrive. Photograph: Getty Images

It’s the time of year that people start throwing around the term “Sad”, short for seasonal affective disorder, and purchasing light therapy lamps.

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“I do think all the focus on the lamps simplifies the treatment in a rather unfortunate way,” says Dr Norman E Rosenthal, whose research on winter depression in the early 1980s led to him coining the term Sad to describe a form of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, and recommended artificial daylight lamps for those who suffer from it. “People think: ‘Use a lightbox and everything will be fine.’”

Rosenthal’s book, Winter Blues, first published in 1993, remains in print and as popular as ever. It estimates that while 5% of people suffer clinically from Sad, a further 15% have some milder version of what he calls the winter blues. “It’s a matter of degrees,” he says.

There is a clear difference between the two – the former tends to be manageable, whereas Sad can permeate your entire life and should be taken seriously (the NHS outlines persistent symptoms: low mood, lethargy, irritability, feelings of despair and worthlessness). I’m sure I don’t have either – but there’s still something wobbly about this winter in particular, an unease about the next four months and a struggle to remember what it is like to be cold and happy. Do we need a new term to describe something that’s not a disorder, but could still be described as our dark period?

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Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist at Stanford University in California, says part of the problem is that our only framework for thinking about mental health at winter is clinical. She is fully accepting that some people do suffer from acute depression and need specialist help, but the rest of us need a different kind of narrative about the seasons. She calls it “a winter mindset”.

In 2014, Leibowitz moved to the town of Trømso in Norway, which is north of the Arctic Circle and where for two months a year the sun never rises. Yet people in Trømso tend to thrive. Years later, this one research project has taken over Leibowitz’s life.

There are things that are nicer to do when the weather is bad: reading a book, using a hot oven to bake bread, taking time to write or practise music

“Yes, I suppose I am more in demand around now – I’m like the Mariah Carey of winter psychology,” she tells me. “I thought I’d write one article about it, put a little bow on it and then move on to other things. But now I’m writing a book on winter mindset and running workshops on how to cope with winter. It speaks to how entrenched our negative views of this season are, and how hungry people are for an alternative way to experience it.”

The main difference between Trømso and the UK, she says, is that people here don’t prepare for winter. “It’s shocking to me that no workplace or even individual prepares for daylight saving ending. We should all be thinking about taking it a bit easier that week, giving us some space to sleep more and do less. Instead we get mad at ourselves for being more tired, rather than understanding that this is what it means to live in tune with the seasons.”

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Leibowitz says that although Covid made last winter more difficult, it can also provide some answers for making them more bearable. It may sound glib, but there have been recent mutterings of nostalgia for some of the more positive elements that came out of the first lockdown – bread baking, close community connections and the opportunity to explore hobbies. Leibowitz points out that winter can afford us those same opportunities.

“People are nostalgic for that contemplation and slowness – winter is a powerful opportunity for that if we let it be. There are things that are nicer to do when the weather is bad: reading a book, using a hot oven to bake bread, taking time to write or practise music.”

Rosenthal tells me about a recent study in Switzerland that says a half-hour walk in the mornings is helpful for those with Sad. “But I’m recommending it widely to all my patients. For those who are susceptible, I recommend another walk in the afternoon too, so you’re sort of mimicking the summer day.”

He adds that is also important to be aware of carbohydrate cravings at this time of year, as they can “drive your eating patterns” and have an adverse effect on mental health.

It may seem freeing to be able to stay indoors, but it’s probably not good for us. Photograph: Rex © Provided by The Guardian It may seem freeing to be able to stay indoors, but it’s probably not good for us. Photograph: Rex

Covid also means that many of us are still working from home, at least some of the time, and while it might seem comfy and freeing to stay ensconced in our snoods all day (and even work from our beds), it’s probably not good for us. Getting dressed and taking a walk, regardless of the weather, can also provide a healthier framework. “The more we can make this a collective practice, something you share with your colleagues rather than hide from them, the better it is for everyone,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a four-day week advocate whose latest book is called Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less.

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“Work used to be closely tied to the sun, tides and seasons – no more,” says Pang. “The world has trained us to overestimate how connected we need to be. For individuals, even setting aside a couple hours when we turn off email and notifications in favour of deep work can help us be more productive, without cutting us off from bosses or clients.”

Leibowitz says walking in the cold is something to look forward to: “People underestimate how pleasurable it feels to go out in bad weather.” In Norway they (obviously) have a word for it, friluftsliv, which is a fondness for open-air living irrespective of season. She adds: “The air is cold but you’re warm and bundled up, you come home and feel invigorated and refreshed. I charge my students to go out on a wintry walk in the dark, and they all come back saying how surprised they were at how nice it was.”

In the end, my 2020 New Year’s Eve was rescued. My bubble household – a couple who had been planning to spend the evening having a romantic dinner – invited me over at the last minute. We ate pasta and played board games, and when the clock struck midnight I was grateful not to be alone.

The next couple of months were unbearable, but this winter doesn’t have to be the same. In October, as part of a grand scheme not to be ground down by gloom, I moved to New York – where I’m told the winter will be bitterly cold. But, for me at least, it will be more novel.

I am looking forward to crisp morning runs, making soup while rewatching Succession, and reading all the books that I took on summer holiday but never got out of my backpack. It’s time to embrace the darkness.

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