The fact that winter is a verb is hilarious, but underneath this hilarity is the cold, dark truth: winter !@#^&?# blows.*
This is my 27th winter in life and my first complete winter in New York City. The past two years I cheated and skipped part of the season by going south, but this year I decided to, um, winter the winter. As a dude with Seasonal Affective Disorder, winter tends to make me sad. Literally. So I’ve gone out of my way this time to keep myself not sad, and after a few months of experimentation, here’s the complete guide.
1. SAD Light
Wake up in the morning and do one of two things. (A) Ideally, if it’s not a blizzard, go the hell outside and absorb some actual sunlight. My commute involves something like 20 minutes of walking, which does the job. I also make an effort to take coffee breaks throughout the day to go for walks and remind myself what the sun looks like. (B) If it’s blizzarding, get a SAD lamp. These things shine a blue light at your face in the morning that activates some receptors in your eyeballs and helps to regulate your circadian rhythm and make you feel un-depressed. Supposedly you have to use them for a few days before you’ll start to notice anything. I’ve gotten in the habit of putting the light next to my computer monitor so that when I wake up in the morning to journal and check email, I sit there with the light hitting my face while I work. It’s a bit annoying at first, but after a few minutes I forget that it’s there.
2. Vitamin D
This one is important. I never really liked the idea of taking vitamins, but this one really makes a difference. Years ago I had a doctor tell me that my D levels were slightly low and that I should take some, and so I started taking some and noticing no difference, and decided that it didn’t do anything. Then, a few years later, I was living in Vancouver and had not seen even a single moment of sunlight in over a month (seriously!) and noticed that I felt somewhere between foggy-headed, low-energy, and depressed, and I wasn’t sure why. I figured I would try vitamin D just in case, and I took a single high-strength pill at night. Within an hour or so I felt amazing: happy and energetic. It was so clear to me from that moment on that this stuff makes a difference. If your D levels are not that low, it probably won’t be noticeable, but when they are, it matters.
Oh, and one more thing about Vitamin D: you should probably take it with some Vitamin K to prevent calcification and with fish oil or some form of fat given that it’s fat soluble. There is evidence, too, that it is synergistic with fish oil (aka omega 3), so try that as well. I’m not a doctor, so I won’t go into detail, but you should read up on it if you want to know more.
Well, sweating, actually. It doesn’t have to be running. Whatever the shortest path to aerobic exercise that makes you sweat is, the better. I used to get cold easily in the winter and be freezing my ass of even when the indoor temperature was as high as 68 degrees. A couple winters ago I started running a few times a week and surprisingly, this phenomenon went away. I’ve since realized that it was partly about circulation. And fun fact: I’ve also discovered that when I run on a regular basis, I don’t mind heat as well either. This sort of exercise seems to help with heat regulation in general.
Humidity and temperature have a bit of a complex relationship. When it’s hot, humidity is the worst. I know because I grew up in Raleigh. For years, I thought humidity was the devil. Then I moved to Colorado and discovered what dryness was like. Ok, maybe humidity wasn’t so bad after all. While there, I realized that cold isn’t just about temperature. In Colorado, it can be zero degrees outside and I don’t mind, yet in North Carolina it can be 34 degrees and I’ll be shivering. Why? It’s humidity. Water is very conductive and it gets inside of your clothes. It sucks the heat out of you so much faster than air ever could. The converse to this, though, is that when it gets below freezing in the winter, humidity drops dramatically and you’ll wake up feeling like sawdust, so you’ll need a humidifier. Getting a humidifier in New York has made an insane difference.
Let’s revisit this Seasonal Affective Disorder thing for a moment. Remember how I said I have it? Well… I used to think that I got really depressed every winter. What I’ve since realized is that I didn’t really get depressed - not in the real sense of the word. What I was getting was antsy, bored, tired, cabin fever, and sleepy. In the winter, my body tries to hibernate. I literally feel more tired and sleep more. Once I accepted this, the depression aspect went away. I wasn’t actually depressed, I was just going into hibernation mode. And by the way, the SAD Lamp helps a lot with the hibernation mode.
I’ve never really been sure what to do with myself in the winter. I didn’t want to go outside, but I didn’t know what to do, either. I’m an outdoorsy person. I go crazy if I can’t go outside. Finding things I can do outside made me actually look forward to winter. Snowboarding. Ice skating. Whatever. Take advantage of the cold while it lasts. Next, when you actually do just want to hide at home, it’s the perfect time to sit down and focus. I have a hard time being productive much of the year because I just want to be outside enjoying the day, but in the winter, I finally have the focus to sit down and write for hours, or code for hours, or learn a new language. It’s the perfect time of the year to do all of those things that take amounts of focus that you don’t normally have.
Finally, if all else fails, just get the !#$^ out. Go south. Go to some tropical island for a week. Last winter I traveled around southern Asia for all of January and coming back to New York after that experience was pretty amazing. Instead of hating winter, I ended up actually missing it and wanting more of it. The contrast in seasons gave me a new appreciation of both warmth and cold.
*unless you are snowboarding