Finding the Right Mindset: Learning to Enjoy Winter
Right now, we’re getting about eight and a half hours of daylight in the Northwoods. That’s about seven hours less than we we’re getting six months ago.
It’s also eight and half more hours of light than Svalbard sees right now.
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago and where Sarah Strand has lived for the last six years.
“We’re about, approximately 2,500 living on Svalbard. Most of those are in Longyearbyen where I live. It’s the main town,” said Strand.
Strand and I met when we were both interns at Denali National Park in the summer of 2014.
She’s completed her graduate program on Svalbard and is currently working on her PhD studying permafrost.
“Most of my fieldwork is in the late summer/early fall,” said Strand. “Basically, it’s the most convenient time to check our equipment. I work with temperature data that’s coming from bore holes in the ground.”
While great for studying permafrost, Svalbard’s weather and climate can be harsh on humans.
The average temperature in January is between 9 and -4 degrees Fahrenheit. And Strand hasn’t seen daylight since the end of October and won’t again until the end of February.
“Now we’re in the period where it basically just dark all the time. If you go out at noon and look towards the south it’s like slightly dark blue instead of black, but barely noticeable,” said Strand. “The first few weeks of the dark season, so the first two weeks of November, then if you go out around noon it’s basically like twilight.”
Strand says the lack of light makes time a somewhat abstract concept.
“I have never done this, but I definitely have had plenty of friends that have completely flipped the clock where you become nocturnal,” said Strand.
She says it can also take a toll on her mental health.
“I’ve never been diagnosed with seasonal depression or what is it, Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD. But I think I definitely tick a lot of those boxes in terms of just feeling lethargic and nothing seems terribly exciting,” said Strand, who grew up in northern California.
When It's More Than the Winter Blues
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that’s related to the change in seasons. Symptoms usually start up in the fall and continue through the winter.
“Some of those symptoms that you may see is increase in isolation. Feelings of loneliness. Maybe some changes in sleep. We may see some increase in stress and fatigue,” said Heidi Pritzl. Pritzl is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for Ascension Koller Behavioral Health in Eagle River and Woodruff.
She recommends seeking medical attention if the symptoms last for weeks or if they’re impacting how you live.
“Are they affecting you at work? Are they affecting you at home or school? We look at all those areas when we are working on an accuracy of diagnosis,” said Pritzl.
For people that are diagnosed, treatment can include therapy, light therapy, or medication.
For people that don’t fall in that category, there are things you can do stay motivated in the winter.
Making the Most of the Dark Season
Strand says she needs something to look forward to.
“The most important thing is just making plans so you can have this feeling of looking at your calendar and feel like I have a somewhat regular schedule,” said Strand.
One weekly item on her calendar is a Tuesday morning, naked dip with friends in the Fjord.
“We call ourselves the ‘Trisdag bad’ which basically means in Norwegian ‘Tuesday bath,” said Strand. “That’s another big mood booster. Just having these silly traditions. I really treasure Tuesday mornings.”
A caveat that should be mentioned, Strand currently lives with little to no COVID restrictions. There haven’t been any cases on Svalbard, so life looks fairly similar to pre-COVID-19. She still has lunch with co-workers and friends, the only face masks people wear are outside to keep from freezing and she goes to exercise classes after work.
But no matter what situation you’re in, Sarah says it’s about finding joy where you can.
“I think finding the small things and special things that are special to the dark season,” she said.
Strand has mastered the right clothing and gear to go running outside, especially after last winter.
“We had basically two months of -20 every day, so then I had to figure out how to run in those temps,” said Strand. That’s -20 Celsius which is -4 Fahrenheit.
Even in the bitter cold, Strand could find joy.
“I run along this river path that doesn’t have streetlights. It will be super nice some days where I’m just on a run and all the sudden I’m like, ‘It’s amazing Northern Lights and I’m on a run under the Northern Lights.’ That’s pretty amazing or just simple nights where it’s clear weather and the moonlight is shining on the snowy mountains. Just appreciating those things,” she said.
While opportunities to run under the Northern Lights are rare for us in the Northwoods, the right mindset can go a long way.
“Having this mindset of not hating it I would say. So many people are like, ‘ugh. I hate winter.’ I think if you live in a place that has a strong winter season you just to really try to disassociate from that mindset,” said Strand. “Even if you don’t love winter, I think most people can think of at least a few things that they like about winter whether that’s you like cross country skiing or you get to be able to light the fireplace or whatever those things are just remember the special things about the season.”