This year has been cold and dark enough already, and now metaphor has become reality: Temperatures are dipping and we’re being driven even deeper into our caves, with the sun setting at around 4 p.m. Raise your hand if you’re in pajama pants by dinner.
“[This winter] could be worse for some people — I shouldn’t say worse, but it may be more challenging — because we’ve been living as if it’s been winter since April, in some ways,” says Dr. Darshan Mehta, medical director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Mass General. Humans are built to be outside; we’re wired for socializing. Not right now. Instead of getting vitamin D from sunlight and energy from other people, we’re illuminated by iPads and laptops.
As day blends into night, our “sense of restfulness” has been disrupted, he says. “It’s as if we’re in a chronic stress response.”
Some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that takes root in late fall and early winter, but even those of us without it have symptoms, too: restlessness, sleeplessness, boredom, sedentariness.
This leads to unhealthy habits, like snacking. The COVID Symptom Study, led in part by Mass General, has tracked pandemic eating habits across the states. Guess what? Massachusetts ranks seventh for total weight gain due to snacking. People reporting increased snacking have gained an average of 7 pounds. Alcohol use has increased, too. Those reporting increased drinking gained an average of 4.6 pounds. (The study did not track increased purchases of elastic-waist pants.)
“I give the analogy of nocturnal animals, like lions and such: They’re always behaving physiologically as if this is their last meal all the time. That’s why they’re prowling through the night; it’s like their life is one meal to the next meal. For humans, that’s why we see increases in obesity and increases in alcohol use,” Mehta says.
So can we wring any goodness out of the primal months ahead without using snacks to mark time? Research says yes: In fact, Scandinavians are incredibly happy people, even though their winters are dark and persistent.
Like them, we need to get comfortable being cold, Mehta says. He cautions that many people link being outdoors in winter to getting sick, but it’s just the opposite.
“Scandinavians actually go outside in the cold. I think we can’t be fearful of the cold,” Mehta says. “There’s actually no data that supports that being out in the cold makes you more susceptible to disease. That’s a myth.”
In fact, he says, huddling indoors is far unhealthier, even during non-COVID times.
“It’s because you’re not going outside that people get sick in the wintertime; [germs] transmit from one to another very quickly. So we actually need to be outside more. That’s the bottom line,” he says.
Reframe it: “We have to go outdoors enough so that we don’t get sick in the wintertime,” he says.
Mehta suggests going outside for an hour per day. If that’s impossible, make a game plan to steal away for any amount of fresh air and sunlight — which might be easier if you’re currently working from home instead of in an office.
“That wasn’t possible pre-COVID. If I was at work, it’d be kind of weird. People would do a double-take: ‘Is he working? What’s he doing?’ That’s a silver lining, in my book,” he says. “You can do this and still work efficiently.”
You’re not cheating if you pop out for a quick walk. Stroll to the mailbox. Dispatch your kids to rake leaves. Do something, anything, to break up the monotony of indoor time.
Make a plan for after work, too. These long, amorphous afternoons that bleed into night are unsettling. Don’t let your schedule be dictated by “The Queen’s Gambit” and dinner. Mehta suggests chunking those Jell-O hours in predictable ways. Maybe after dinner you always play a board game or spend a few minutes recounting the best, worst, and weirdest parts of your day.
“As long as you have predictable time where you’re attaching with your kids or with your other family members, it’s actually a buffer against some of the negative effects of the disruption,” Mehta says.
Finally, remember: While sunlight is important, your other senses play a major role in happiness, too. Don’t overlook them in your quest for fresh air. You can create a better environment using smell, taste, and sound.
“I think one of the things we focus on a lot is light, but what I think is probably more important, or equally as important, is harnessing the creative spirit,” Mehta says. “That’s where the arts are very helpful. Music is very important. Creating environments is really what this is about.”
So put down the iPad and make an environment that you love. Doesn’t have to be fancy. Design a few playlists with your kids. Throw your favorite soup onto the stove. Paint a room. Dig out your favorite sweatshirt from 1999. Better to light a (scented?) candle than to curse the darkness.
Feeling cozy at home is a luxury, though, especially right now. And so, in closing, a small plug: For 65 years, Globe Santa has made the holidays a little brighter for families in need. This year, those needs are heightened. If you’re in a position to donate, break up your day in one more way and visit globesanta.org.