By Steven Petrow,
Not long ago, as I was writing this column, an ominous “winter storm warning” had been issued for the mountains of western North Carolina where I was visiting. My heart rate went up as I worried what to do if the power went out or the roads became impassable.
I was also thinking back to a few weeks before, when Joe Biden, who was then president elect, warned about “a very dark winter” and a news headline predicted that the winter months “are going to be just horrible.” Those words referred to the coronavirus pandemic, not the weather, but the darkness of the two felt the same to me as I awaited the storm.
Kari Leibowitz, a Stanford University health psychologist in the Mind and Body Lab and an expert on what’s often called the “wintertime mind-set,” agrees that these first months of the new year “are where the rubber really meets the road in terms of winter.” In December, the cold and darkness have some novelty, and there are holidays — many of them festivals of light — to anticipate. By January, she says, the season becomes “the coldest, darkest, wettest time of year. . . . People are sick of it.”
Leibowitz has long studied what’s known as “mental reframing,” which can help us adapt to midwinter darkness, approaching winter storms and even stress.
Several years ago, Leibowitz moved to the Arctic to learn how Scandinavians don’t just survive but thrive during the long winters. The sun doesn’t rise at all in the far north for two months, but she noted that Norwegians have comparable rates of seasonal depression to those of us in the United States.
“One reason . . . is that they tend to have a positive wintertime mind-set” unlike many Americans, she told me. “They see the winter as a special time of year full of opportunities for enjoyment and fulfillment, rather than a limiting time of year to dread.”
Her research found that a positive mind-set — the result of reframing — is associated with well-being, greater life satisfaction and more positive emotions like pleasure and happiness. Accepting the inevitable helps, too — as a yoga teacher once told my class, “Let go or be dragged down.”
“People who see stressful events as ‘challenges,’ with an opportunity to learn and adapt, tend to cope much better than those who focus more on the threatening aspects — like the possibility of failure, embarrassment or illness,” Leibowitz has said previously. What strikes me is her suggestion that mental framing can not only impact our mental health but also result in physiological differences — for instance, changes in blood pressure and heart rate — and our capacity to recover more quickly after a challenging situation.
I understood what Leibowitz means by “mental reframing” from personal experience.
Last January, I traveled to northern Finland, where temperatures are often far below zero (and that’s Fahrenheit) and when there’s nearly a month of days when the sun neither rises nor sets. As I embarked on a meditation retreat, “dread” of the dark and cold would be an accurate description of what I felt, and what the other Americans on the trip expressed.
Not so the Finns and other Scandinavians in our program, who seemed highly adept at finding their way in this dark season, and who embraced the frigid temperatures.
Sinikka Isokaanta, a psychotherapist who had joined the retreat, told me about how she thrives in the long winters. Nordic people, she said, don’t see the “dark cold winter as a crisis but more as a challenge that can be managed in different ways.”
For her, it’s all about “kotoilu,” similar to what the Danes call “hygge,” meaning the coziness of home. “It’s a time to enjoy being home with dim lights on, feeling like wintersleeping bears,” she said. Echoing Leibowitz’s research, she added, “These periods bring about a sense of grounding, contentment, happiness and togetherness.”
Isokaanta also had a surprising reframing about how she experiences the long nights. “The darkness offers a safe container to hide from the world. It can be thought of as protection, unlike the bright daylight when everything is visible.”
I was envious of her equanimity, especially as I shivered in the cold, trying to find enough light to get from the lodge to the meditation hall. Then I remembered what my late grandmother used to tell me: “A good attitude begets a good result. A negative one, a negative result.”
Perhaps I needed to stop fighting against the dark and cold?
Indeed, on the third day I finally did just that. I layered on all my winter gear — from thermal underwear and thick socks to a hat and a balaclava mask — and realized with the right preparation I didn’t feel cold. I also reframed my perception of the dark, paying more attention to the light reflecting off the snow, the shine of the moon at night and the little fires set along pathways. I embraced the Finnish winter with “sisu,” or what roughly translates to persistence and resilience — not dread. I saw much beauty in the shadows. Even better: I could find my way with no hint of the sun.
Is it too late for us to cultivate such a mind-set this year? Leibowitz says no, but urges people to deploy two strategies as soon as possible. Spend time outside, perhaps walking in a park or enjoying winter sports if you’re in a snow zone. Or just gathering at a coronavirus-safe distance around a fire pit. Being in nature is a well-known way to boost mood as well as mental and physical health. Use natural light to celebrate the darkness of winter, Leibowitz says.
Appreciate the winter months, and be conscious of your perspective. Try to stop thinking about this season as dark and depressive, with backbreaking snows to clear or gray skies to wear you down, in favor of something magical or evocative of happier times. Take out that instapot to cook up stews and soups, pull out the baking soda and tins to make muffins and cakes, even take a few minutes or more to enjoy the magic of a new snowfall before turning to the salting and shoveling.
Mental reframing, however, is not only a strategy about fighting the wintertime blues. This concept can also be applied to how we experience illness and other daily challenges.
Leibowitz told me about a study focused on kids who were getting oral immunotherapy for life-threatening peanut allergies and their families. The therapy had some scary side effects, but her team found that kids and families “who were able to view these side effects as a sign the treatment was working had better treatment experience and outcomes across the board.” Those patients were less likely to skip doses because of anxiety over the side effects.
Leibowitz also cited studies indicating that people tend to perform better under stress if they view it as a positive influence rather than a negative or destructive one. “When you’re able to adopt this mind-set, that stress is something that can propel you to achieve your goals, then stress becomes more of a positive thing,” she says.
As important, she says that by changing our attitudes about stress, people “can have better health outcomes and better performance even without their stress.”
As I awaited the approaching winter storm, I took to heart much of what Leibowitz and Isokaanta had told me. I made preparations: getting a good snow shovel and salt, running out to the market to buy plenty of food and drink, and borrowing a pair of boots so I could get outside and enjoy the snow. Once I had done all that, I noticed my heart rate — a.k.a. anxiety — had lessened. And while I couldn’t stop the coming storm, I could change how I responded to it. In the end, it snowed for most of two days, with more than nine inches blanketing the mountains.
I survived. I might even say I thrived.
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