I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, for five years, which taught me some things about winter. I don’t claim to be an expert or the most awesome at winter—I mean, I did leave, right?—but I listened when long-time Alaskans talked, and I observed which advice helped the most. I don’t think I have full-on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but I do get sluggish and bluesy in the winter, if I’m not careful. Ironically, today might be one such day—I’m feeling low-energy and grumpy, and I’m craving carbohydrates and endless tea/coffee. So, for your use and mine, here is the advice I’ve gathered from friends, coworkers, strangers, and the internet, about how to thrive when the days are short and cold.
Spoiler: the most important section is probably the last one.
Get enough vitamins
Especially vitamin D. While there’s evidence that multivitamins aren’t all that useful in general, there are some vitamins that evidence suggests we should take. D is one, especially in winter. Because it is fat-soluble, I like to take my vitamin D with fish oil. Sometime in my past I was told to focus my vitamin D intake on D3, but now I’m having trouble finding evidence online that that’s necessary; it looks to me like D2 is also great.
For folks who object to taking any kind of vitamin supplement, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of foods that contain much vitamin D naturally, besides salmon and mackerel. In America many of our dairy products have been vitamin D fortified, which makes milk and yogurt good choices, too. Here’s WebMD’s list of food sources of vitamin D.
This wasn’t part of the advice long-term Alaskans gave me, that I recall, but I also find that vitamin B12 gives me back a little of the energy that winter seems to sap. (Your mileage may vary; my blood tests all suggest I’m short on it, possibly because I keep insisting on eating gluten despite evidence that I’m gluten-sensitive.)
This is also a good time for a reminder that frozen vegetables might actually be nutritionally superior to “fresh” vegetables, because they are processed immediately and have less time to lose nutrients. (This was especially likely in Anchorage. Add 3 days of shipping to everything. Oof.) Whether they’re better or not, what’s important is that they are available all year; take advantage of the freezer section, and don’t short yourself on veggies! Also, this is going to tie into a later point, but be sure to enjoy some of the special fall and winter produce: certain squashes and gourds, beets, cabbage, Brussels sprouts (hey, they’re awesome roasted), and sweet potatoes. I’m not sure why, but people in Virginia got boxes of oranges shipped to us in December, when I was a kid; they were always amazing, and bright, and so welcome. Plus, candied orange peel is a fun holiday treat. So if that’s offered in your area, I recommend it.
This one seems counter-intuitive, because it is cold, but every Alaskan south of the Arctic circle agreed: you’ll stay so much happier if you take a couple of minutes during daylight to peek outside. (North of the Arctic circle, “daylight” isn’t a thing every day.) Even 5-10 minutes will make a real difference for your mood and energy level, especially if you’re being active. The long-term Alaskans insisted: real sunlight, even if it’s filtered through clouds, has better impact on your mood than even the best light therapy box.
Maybe also get a light therapy box, though
Here’s Mayo Clinic’s buying guide, though light therapy is a Real Medical Thing™, and real medical things should be discussed with one’s doctor. So, especially if you think you have SAD, please do go talk to your doctor. Check and see if your insurance will cover it (your doctor may be able to give you a prescription, to help with that), or maybe a workplace wellness program. If not, and if you’d prefer to spend as little as possible, there are directions online for building your own.
I had one on my desk at work and one at home—not the professional grade ones, or anything I’d researched at Mayo Clinic, just what they offered at the local big box store. And, perhaps because I didn’t have the super big, serious ones, I used them for more hours per day than is generally suggested. (I did not talk to my doctor, beyond saying “yeah, I have a light box” when she asked. I am not a good example. Don’t be me.) I felt like I had to, to focus. Winter makes me so sleepy.
My SAD lights (side note: I think the manufacturers hate when we call them that) came back to the Lower 48 with me. Seriously, I wish I’d known about this
magic technology years ago; maybe I’d have drunk less caffeine during school.
Also, I do not recommend this, but many Alaskans go tanning during the winter. The folks who do it, swear by it.
Remember how I said to get outside? If you live in a civilized place (imagine me glaring north, toward Anchorage) where they do not leave ice on the roads, sidewalks, and parking lots all winter, my very best advice is to take at least a short walk during lunch.
If I had to give only one reason for leaving the state, that’s probably it: it wasn’t safe for me to take walks, or really to go much of anywhere, for most of the winter, since everything was covered in ice, and I couldn’t risk falling. Not that anyone wants to fall, but, post-arthritis, my injuries don’t heal; they just become new long-term pain sources. So I couldn’t take that vital walk during lunch, and my mental and physical health suffered. (I am aware of Spikies and their ilk. You can’t wear those indoors, and people with arthritis aren’t known for our dexterity. I’ll leave it at that.)
The happiest Alaskans don’t just walk at lunch; most are into skiing or snowshoeing or all-weather biking (with studded tires!) or some other winter sport that gets them outside regularly.
I will say that, when I made time (and risked the parking lot) to go to the gym, it improved my mood noticeably, even though I wasn’t getting sunlight at the same time. Exercise in the daylight is best, but any exercise will help!
Winter is a good time for sitting together with friends over hot beverages. (For all of these options, if your family is soothing for you, feel free to substitute “family.” Because I know that isn’t the case for everyone, I’m going to keep saying “friends.”)
If you’re into making things—fiber crafts, cooking, homebrewing, making candles or soap, scrapbooking—it’s a good time to do that with others, or perhaps teach people who would like to learn. Or learn a new craft from someone who likes to teach. Honestly, many Alaskans would put “Make things” into my list as a major heading; the satisfaction of having made something is a major mood booster, and Alaskans are remarkably productive crafters during the winter months. I can’t even contemplate yarn in the summers, down here, but crocheting is deeply soothing once the air cools. (Interestingly, cross-stitch seems to be an all-season activity for me.) But back to socializing: one of my favorite winter activities in Alaska was meeting with friends at a coffee shop for crafting and chatting. Now that I’ve realized I can probably do that here in Pittsburgh, too, I’m looking forward to some good times this winter. (Like I said, I write for myself, too. 😀)
Play games with friends. The cycle of seasons being as dramatic as it was in Alaska (still is, I guess 😀), I tended to refuse to play D&D and other tabletop games in the summer, both because I wanted the time free for outdoor adventures and because I knew we’d want to game all winter. And we did.
Take a friend (or friends) with you on your lunchtime visit to the outdoors!
Camping with friends is also a possibility, even in winter. My former boss did winter camping in Alaska, so I’m sure you could do it further south. We never camped, but we had some epic winter fire pit parties, with the snow mounded up around us to help hold in warmth; this is an experience I am hoping to mimic down here in PA. I’d like to do cabin camping with friends, too, but I’m not sure if I’m up to winter tent camping.
If your friends are far away, reach out to them via instant messenger, Skype, or social media. My friends on social media got me through my hardest winter ever (which was, ironically, not in Alaska).
Spend time around living things (or good photos)
Plants in my house help me feel good all year, but especially in winter. So do my birds (most of the time; sometimes their behavior reminds me that they are tiny undomesticated dinosaurs). It probably doesn’t hurt that plants and birds both require additional light, either.
But I’m not alone in this: pet ownership seems to be near-universal in Alaska, as are green thumbs.
If that doesn’t sound like something you’d enjoy, a friend of a friend suggested printing (or buying) landscape photos full of life and sun and greenery to hang up at work or at home. That’s a lot lower-maintenance than actual living things, and it may help.
Travel, if you can
If you can go somewhere warmer and sunnier, that can be salve for the soul during a long winter.
Alaskans must account for a significant portion of Hawaii’s tourist income in winter. I knew multiple people who owned houses there (which blows my mind, by the way—owning multiple houses, deliberately?!). Ironically, I only went once, in September, when it was less expensive to go. I still think it helped with that winter, but it’s hard to say.
That said, conferences got me out of Alaska at least once each winter, and for that I am grateful. ALA in Anaheim in January was probably the best, on the “escape from winter” front, although Code4Lib in Raleigh in March came close. But, really, with the possible exception of Chicago, every conference venue was a relief from Alaska’s cold and darkness.
Which is to say, you don’t necessarily have to leave your land mass (unless you’re in the UK, Greenland, or Iceland, sorry), to get somewhere warmer and sunnier than where you are. It’s all relative.
One note about travel, though: make sure to take extra good care of yourself when you get back, in part to help the effect last longer and in part because winter can seem extra dark and cold after time away, for many people.
At first, this sounds both paradoxical and pollyanna. If you’re reading about how to thrive in the winter, obviously, winter is hard for you, not innately enjoyable. I’m there with you; I get it. But this is arguably my most important piece of advice, and it includes some ideas for how to enjoy winter, so please keep reading.
Remember how I said to enjoy some of the seasonal vegetables?
And how the happiest Alaskans have a winter sport they like to do?
Norwegians are the same way: they look forward to winter, and as a result, they have startlingly few cases of seasonal depression.
Choosing to be happy is a powerful thing, whether we’re talking about making it through winter or life in general. I wouldn’t usually point at a Business Insider link when talking about psychology, but two psych PhDs I really look up to have both endorsed this one: Four rules that will make you a happier person. I want to point, especially, to the practice of gratitude.
I think part of the reason #30daysofthanks is so popular, this time of year, is that we need it. (Also, Thanksgiving, but I think the timing of that is part of this same phenomenon.) Actively taking time out of your day to be grateful for something, for a whole month, is powerful stuff. It’s made my winters better, for sure. And it’s one of those things you can start mid-November and just carry into December, if you want—I’ve done that, some years.
If you want to actively practice gratitude all year, there’s an app for that. (And there are studies showing that sharing your gratitude is more powerful than just acknowledging it to yourself. Plus, you get to read other people’s happy thoughts, too.)
I know, though: you’re reading this blog post today and want something you can do to make things better now, right? It’s cool; I have a suggestion!
Make a list of the things you get to do/enjoy in winter—for my own list, I include late fall and early spring, as well as things that can be done all year but are best in winter. In case it will help seed your list, here’s mine: hot tea, crochet, pumpkins and pumpkin-flavored things, Christmas carols, scarves, winter hats, fingerless gloves, slippers, fireplaces, egg nog, gingerbread lattes, snow, sweaters, pretty lights (I have colored lights in my window, but they’re only on for an hour or two in the summer), candles, hot chocolate, baking (I don’t have central air, so it’s too hot to bake in the summer), root vegetables, soup, blankets, winter holidays, everything smelling like cinnamon, icicles, my birthday :), curling up on the couch to watch movies, my electric blanket, and looking forward to spring. (That last one sounds weird, but anticipation is a nice feeling. I can anticipate spring without having to dislike winter.)
Making that list has made me pretty psyched about the season, my friends. Make a list for yourself, and maybe put it somewhere you can see it (and add to it, as you think of more things). It will help.