Rick’s Report: Preempt the Winter Blues

By Rick Hiduk

Winter is well upon us, even though the calendar does not yet say so. Temperatures for most of us in the Endless Mountains of PA bottomed out near 11 degrees and might reach zero by week’s end. A significant snow event is predicted for this weekend. (Read about it at www.waynesweatherworld.com)

I’ve admitted in the past that I had a tough time conquering winter and not allowing it to get me down. But I have learned to be proactive about it, and I’d be happy if even one of my suggestions helps anyone who too often succumbs to the winter blues.

For me, there were three key elements of the season that had to be dealt with separately – coldness, short dark days, and the stress of the holidays – in that order.

Cold weather and wind are inevitable in the winter, even though some winters aren’t as cold as others. Don’t wait to get cold. Once that chill sets into your bones, it’s awfully tough to kick out, regardless of how heavy the sweater or warm the portable heater.

Cover your skin before you put on your clothes. I wear long underwear from mid October to early April – bottoms almost every day and thermal tops, which come in a variety of colors to go under your more fashionable outerwear, on any day that’s going to stay below freezing. This goes for inside the house too. You can always take a layer off, but start warm by keeping yourself covered up.

Keep your head and ears warm with a knit cap or crazy toque. A lot of body heat is lost through your head, and your ears are thin and vulnerable. Keep in mind too that removing your hat is the quickest way to cool down if you go inside or are feeling a little overheated.

Wear gloves, and don’t be ashamed to wear a scarf. The hands and neck are two parts of your body that are normally exposed and get cold very quickly, especially on windy days. A hoody under your jacket is a viable alternative to a scarf.

Electric blankets are rather inexpensive or a practical gift to request for Christmas. You might not need it on all night, but it’s nice to climb into a warm bed and then shut it off. I’ve always preferred to keep the air in the bedroom cool at night and still never had to run the electric blanket on higher than 2. (10 must be for non-natives in Alaska and Siberia.)

Slightly more expensive but ever more effective is a heated mattress pad. Heat coming up from the bed is even cozier. Momentarily too warm and don’t want to turn the control down? Stick a few toes or your bare foot out of the blankets for a few minutes.

Don’t turn your thermostat all the way to its daytime setting as soon as you wake in the morning. Just a few degrees in the morning will convince your body that it’s getting warmer. When you start to feel a little chilly around noon, bump it up again. Save the last two degrees for when the sun goes down. That final burst of heat will give you a cozy feeling that can override the gloominess that can accompany nightfall. If you’re going to use a supplemental space heater anywhere, use it safely when needed in the bathroom. It’s easy to get chilled when stepping out of the bath or shower in the winter.

Now that you’re warmed up, let’s move on to pushing back the darkness.

Light deprivation is the most common cause of depression during winter months, and it’s not simply psychological. The reduced spectrum of light that glances off the north from November to January and the limited hours of daylight trigger the brain to slow the endocrine system’s production of “happy” hormones. Doctors often prescribe light therapy for patients suffering badly from light deprivation. It generally involves reading or some other relaxing activity for a certain amount of time in the glow of light bulbs that recreate the color spectrum of the summer sun. I do read when I can, but I’ve never been one to sit still for long, so I’m glad that my indoor plant hobby led me to an even better solution.

When we moved from a relatively large house in Lancaster County to a much more modest one, I was suddenly faced with finding a safe haven for more than 60 palm trees, ficus shrubs, ferns, and cacti. When an early frost was predicted one fall night, I moved them from the patios to the basement in desperation and distributed among them an odd assortment of old lamps and light fixtures with plant bulbs in them.

I lifted weights in the adjacent corner and was suddenly looking forward to my workouts much more than I had with the standard basement lighting in the stone-walled cellar. Long story short, friends and relatives also wanted to be among the plants in the cellar so much that we created a barroom and dance floor in the basement and hosted awesome winter parties among those comforting grow lights and palms.

Now we’re in an even smaller house with no space in the basement for recreation. I currently have about 35 tropical plants in front of windows or in corners and other unused space in the house. As the sun starts to set, I turn on six plant lights strategically placed among them. The result is six islands of bright greenery in otherwise dark recesses of the house. The plants are happy and releasing oxygen and making me forget how dark it is outside.

That of course is what the Festival of Lights and stringing of Christmas decorations is meant to do. Even pre-Christian cultures in northern Europe and Asia had special celebrations on or near the Winter Solstice and burned logs and candles as a way to symbolically ward off the longest night of the year. Jewish and Christian traditions were often built upon the traditions of the supposed barbarians and primitive peoples, and the lights of winter were given new meanings.

Which brings me to the stress that can accompany the holidays.

From Thanksgiving Eve to New Years Day (and beyond in some cultures and family traditions), we are expected to jump into a rat race that never seems to end. The pressure to attend every meal and function, to decorate, to host, and to purchase all of the right gifts can drive a person insane, whether or not he or she also makes the time to observe the religious elements of the holidays.

It took a total meltdown one Christmas for me to realize that I felt that the holidays were being imposed on me. I resented it and vowed that Christmas would never again take over my life from Nov. 25 to Jan. 6. But I needed to step away from the Christmas that I thought lay ahead of me and develop a Christmas that worked for me.

Part of this plan may seem self-serving, but, let’s face it, stress breeds stress. Getting a handle on your own stress level now will be a benefit to everyone around you as well later.

Grab a cup of tea or a glass of wine, have a seat in a comfortable room off the beaten path and let your memory drift over your Christmases past. Look for and generalize the bright moments, those that give you tinges of the Christmas spirit or even make you swell with it.

Was it the lighting of the town tree in the square, the smell of fresh baked goods, the sound of family and friends laughing, children singing Christmas carols, serving meals to or taking gifts to those less fortunate, the sound of sleigh bells, or the calm of lightly falling snow?

Make a mental list of those things and think of them as your positive criteria, the parts of Christmas that mean the most to you and of which you want more. As you start to fill your December calendar, try to make sure that each block of time that you commit to satisfies one of those criteria.

Give yourself days or nights off in advance by marking them on your calendar. Start with days that you know are best for chores like laundry and grocery shopping. You might find that you do have to give up that time for an opportunity or obligation that pops up at the last minute. But tagging days off in advance gives helps you absorb the unexpected without as much stress.

Know that you will not find every gift that someone has asked for or needs, you will miss the party of a good friend or close family member because of bad weather, you will likely not get all the baking done that you had hoped, one strand of lights on the tree might go out before the gathering at your house, someone else’s change in plans will make you late for a school pageant or a church service, and you will overindulge at some point and wish you hadn’t.

Give yourself a break, and have a safe and Joyous Hanukkah or Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Stay warm this winter and think bright thoughts.

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