The Slow Season: 4 Ways to Survive (and Thrive) in These Long Winter Months

Health & Wellness

Photo by Melissa Oholendt

Happy twenty nineteen, folks. The confetti from our New Year’s celebrations has effectively settled now that it’s February. The festive sheen of whatever resolutions we did or did not set has maybe, probably, in all likelihood, vanished. And here in the North, our coldest season is well underway.

The leaves have long since fallen and the snow is trying its best to stick. The sun doesn’t rise until well after seven; it sets just after five. There are large rafts of ice attempting to build their home on the Mississippi—there one day, gone the next. The sidewalks are empty, save for the occasional runner or cyclist or human taking their dog for a quick walk. The temperatures now dip well below freezing; we can all see our breath in the air.

It’s winter, in Minnesota.

I would not say I have ever been a Winter Person. Ironic! Given that I live in, and have always lived in, a state in which winter is one of the most prominent features. The cold likes to settle deep into my bones, and stay there, any time I venture outside. I have never found a coat that is simultaneously warm enough and also, I don’t know, even mildly flattering. The coordination level with which my body was inherently gifted has never quite seemed to lend itself to any activity that requires gliding across literal ice. And then there’s the darkness. I have long disliked the early sunsets of winter, and the long nights that accompany them.

I know I am not alone in this. When temperatures are cold, and daylight is sparse, and we’re all resultantly low on Vitamin D, maintaining a positive mindset can feel next to impossible. Convincing ourselves that the entirety of November through March (or April) is not just time we should make it through, but time we should actually try to enjoy, can be a challenge. I get it.

Despite all of this, I’m setting out to change my mindset this year. I’ve been setting out to change it for a few years, actually, but winter 2018 – 2019 seems to be the one where that change is finally beginning to stick. 

A Catalyst for Change

The catalyst that spurred on this year’s flurry of a desire to actually enjoy the winter months was a circumstance from which many an intention has been born: good old-fashioned heartbreak. I thought of the idea for this post back in November. Sunday, November 4, to be exact. I was sitting at the counter of my favorite coffee shop, avoiding going home, where the full brunt of my Thoughts and Feelings would surely be waiting to greet me the second I walked in the door. I settled in with a heaping pot of ginger turmeric tea, and started typing away on my laptop, reflecting on what had most certainly been the hardest few days of my year, up to that point.

It was the weekend of daylight saving—that often disputed, occasionally dreaded time when humans all over this part of the Earth turn back their clocks an hour, hesitantly signaling the beginning of the great seasonal shift. It was the first afternoon when the sun would set well before five. Winter was impending. And I had, only a few days prior, ended a relationship with the one person I cared about more than anyone else, at the time.

It was a friendship that had been turning into more than a friendship even though it couldn’t turn into more than a friendship, and I knew I had to let it go. So I did. It nearly broke me, though, that weekend after I said goodbye. I cried a lot and I fell into one of those very human spirals in which I became a shell of myself and thought I would feel like that for… ever; I thought I was a Sad Person now, unequivocally, for the rest of my life. Dramatic!! I know. And it feels strange to write about it now, because the way I was feeling then seems a lifetime away, compared to how I’m feeling today, as I type these words months later. But we’ve all been there. It happens. It happens to some more than others—to the brave souls, more unapologetically vulnerable than me, who risk putting their heart on the line, who then do it again, and again (and maybe again, for good measure).

But this isn’t actually a story about heartbreak; this is a story about what comes after it.

That Sunday, and in the days before, and in the days after, I did what I do: I wrote it down. All of it. Round and round in circles I wrote. I tried to get to the bottom of how I was feeling and, eventually, I tried to figure out how the hell I could feel better. I came to a few conclusions, about the friendship itself, and about the impending winter season, too. I’ve come to a few more since—through experience, through trial and error, through coffee shop conversations with other friends. On November 4 I started a list, sitting at that counter, drinking that tea. It was entitled [clears throat]: MY HOW TO BE OKAY AND MAYBE EVEN, I DON’T KNOW, THRIVE (YES, BITCH, F*CKING THRIVE) THIS WINTER LIST.

Yes, I wrote it in all caps. Yes, I included two expletives (sorry, mom); yes, they felt necessary to add at the time, and yes, typing them out then made me laugh, which was a very nice feeling to experience. (I still can’t read the title without laughing; it’s ridiculous, in what I consider to be the best way possible.)

Below, allow me to present to you the contents of said list, edited for clarity, and also for the need to present it to an audience greater than one (that’s you!).

4 Ways to Survive (and Even Thrive) in the Long Winter Months

1. Get outside.

This is a key and a maybe kind of obvious element to winter in Minnesota. You’ve gotta get outside. Cabin Fever?? Ever heard of it??? It is a real affliction that occurs when one spends too much time indoors. It results in feeling antsy, lethargic, and generally crabby toward any of the suddenly insufferable humans existing within a fifteen-foot radius.

To alleviate said affliction, one must step outside—at least often, but ideally every day, if and when possible. As with all good habits, starting slow and steady is usually the way to go. I personally would suggest beginning with a five-minute walk around the block before work! Or during your lunch break! Or whenever the heck you please! Sometimes you will have time and energy and outdoor clothing better suited for longer outdoor exploits, which leads me to my next item.

2. Participate in one quintessential winter activity of your choosing.

If you find yourself falling into a winter funk or the winter doldrums or a winter ailment of another name, one thing that can sometimes help alleviate said feelings is to try something new. Not only will it be a healthy distraction, but I am told it will result in an uptick of those feel-good neurotransmitters that get released when you try new things!! And, I mean, that sounds nice, yes?

In a place such as Minnesota, might I suggest trying your hand at one of the following? Snowshoeing, ice fishing, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, winter camping (but, like, please don’t die!!), ice skating, or snowmobiling. A thing I personally have been telling anyone within arm’s length is that I plan to go cross-country skiing at some point before the snow melts. Applications for the role of my skiing partner are currently being accepted. Qualifications include being mildly competent with outdoor activities so as to be able to assist me should I need guidance and/or moral support, but not so competent that you make me look fully inept. Deal? Deal.

3. Recognize this season for what it is, and lean into it.

In my mind’s eye, winter is the slow season—a time when the pace of things becomes collectively less hurried. It’s the part of the year when the vast majority of us are inclined to spend more time cuddled up in our abodes than rushing around the outside world (save for our daily five-minute walks and occasional outdoor adventures, of course). I’ve learned that one of the best things we can do for ourselves when the temperatures plummet and the daylight hours shorten is lean into the things that are especially enjoyable in this season.

If it’s dark outside so often and so early, why not allow ourselves the chance to get more sleep?  If we’re all inside more often, why not lean into the indoor activities we tend to put off the rest of the year? Why not read the stack of books we’ve had sitting by our bed for the past six months? Why not spend some time setting goals and chipping away at the tasks we’ll be less inclined to do when the temperatures rise again in the spring? Why not watch every single episode of Planet Earth to ever grace our Netflix account? The thing that’s best for us will look different for everyone on any given day. But I think it’s worth asking ourselves how we want to spend this additional time indoors and intentionally setting out to do just that.

4. Figure out what your brain needs this time of year and schedule that shit in.

For those of us who tend toward sadness in the winter months, this time of year is an excellent opportunity to figure out exactly what it is we need to be okay. It’s an ideal chance to think of all of the little things that bring us joy, and to welcome that stuff into our lives in droves.

For me, an anxiety and depression-prone individual (hi nice to meet you), this means getting enough sleep, drinking less caffeine, working out most days (Even if it’s just for a little while! Sometimes I am on the treadmill for eight minutes and then I am done! That is more than fine!), experiencing fresh air and daylight, spending less time on my phone, and making sure I schedule in time with the people I enjoy. It also means lighting a candle! Or putting on a face mask! Or watching When Harry Met Sally, again! All of the above being things I do solely when I can, because I am nowhere close to perfect and none of them happen every single day.

For you, the things you need in your life may look completely different, and that is cool. But ask yourself questions like, What do I need to feel okay? What little things bring me joy? and try to make time for more of whatever your answers entail, when you can swing it. Intentionally doing what we can to take care of ourselves is not a selfish pursuit; it’s a meaningful pursuit. It’s absolute grace.

Halfway through writing this post, I stepped outside into a frigid evening, going from one place to the next. The wind whipped at every tiny bit of exposed skin I’d left available to the elements as I embarked on the awkward, brisk walk-run most Minnesotans employ when making their way from doorstep to vehicle in the cold. I got in my car, exhaled, watched my breath slowly dissipate in the air, and said, out loud, “Makes you feel alive.” And you know what? It does.

Maybe this mindset is finally starting to sink in?
Perhaps it only takes twenty-eight years?
I don’t know.
Check in with me in mid-March, okay?

In the meantime, I’m setting out to enjoy this season, as best I can. And, if you’re feeling up for it, I invite you to do the same.

BY Jackie Saffert - February 8, 2019

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February 9, 2019 11:46 am

Here’s another winter hater! The coldness truly penetrates through me all the way to the core, and since my house has heating systems from the 20’s I have to mentally prepare myself before I remove my clothes for shower before I get the water up to boiling point (which is adequate). This also means that my everyday style takes a huge step back in winter because I can’t plan my outfits due to not being able to try different outfits on cause it’s too cold to peel off the 3 layers of wool I’m wearing. And that’s when I’m inside.… Read more »

February 11, 2019 4:49 pm

Love this post. I’ve been trying to embrace this mentality the last several years, to varying degrees of success. So, this was a wonderful reminder to be kind and gentle with myself as the weather is so frightful!

Also: I, too, have been talking about going cross-country skiing all year. (And, ok, for the past four years.) I went a couple times in high school and college and loved it, but just never seem to get around to trying it again. So, I hereby volunteer to be your XC ski partner if you’re still looking!

February 13, 2019 3:56 pm

The title of your list gave me a much-needed chuckle and a smile stuck to my face while reading the rest of this post! Thank you for sharing, I look forward to implementing this in my maybe-not-as-bad-as-Minnesota-but-still-cold Connecticut winter. 🙂

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