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With weekend storm looming, snow anxiety hits

Pedestrians were obscured by snow banks in downtown Boston this past February. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

The storm is still days away — too soon to say whether it will be much of a snowstorm at all, and yet . . .

One year after the start of the stormiest stretch of winter weather in Boston history, the season’s first threat of significant snow sent moods sagging Tuesday, like an old roof under 2 feet of accumulation.

Can an entire metropolis call in sick and hide under a blanket? The anxiety that prompts such thoughts is a recognized psychological response.

“There is really significant anticipatory anxiety — that’s what we call it,” said Dr. Ericka Bohnel, assistant director of clinical services at Commonwealth Psychology Associates. “People started to talk to me about it in October when there was the first chill.”

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Commuters who had an appalling time last winter, stranded or delayed by weather-related MBTA service meltdowns, are especially dreading the return of snow.

“I am definitely not ready for this,” said MBTA rider Kate Saville Worrall.

A year ago, Saville Worrall, who commutes into the city for work, poured out her frustration in the primal scream of the digital age — on Twitter. She used the hashtags #mbta and #killme.

“I honestly haven’t been thinking about winter until this week,” she said.

And why would she? Bostonians just luxuriated through a green Christmas that could have been swiped from San Diego, and then sweat-shirt weather into January. Mild temperatures fed a sense that this was our reimbursement for being so grossly overcharged last winter.

The National Weather Service on Tuesday suggested a foot of snow is possible Friday into Saturday, though meteorologists said it was too early for a confident prediction.

Our falling spirits over the return of snow is not just in our minds, said Bohnel — it’s in our brains. Specifically, an old primal part of our brain, called the amygdala, which she likened to the black box in an aircraft.

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“It records any fear or emotionally significant experience,” Bohnel said. With the memory recorded, that part of the brain will alert the nervous system when a similar experience arises — such as the sudden flash of brake lights just like in that car accident you once had.

“The amygdala will alert the nervous system and say: ‘Be afraid! Slam on your brakes so that terrible event doesn’t happen again.’ ”

Roofers such as Jay Bullens Jr. were in demand across the region last February.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Brains across the region are imprinted with emotionally charged memories of a historic winter, she said, and many New Englanders are feeling anxiety as their brains pick up on cues: long nights and short winter days, cold air and harsh wind, breathless TV weather reports.

To combat the reaction, Bohnel recommended reminding ourselves that this is a new year, and chances are it won’t be as bad as last year’s record-setter. And even if it is bad, we should remember we survived the worst that winter could throw at us.

“We’re teaching our brain it’s not really as catastrophic as we make it,” she said.

Perhaps we could also recognize that no matter how bad we get it, somebody else will probably get it worse: most likely Valdez, Alaska, the snowiest town in the United States, according to a five-year-old study by the website weather.com.

Valdez’s mayor, Larry Weaver, said Tuesday that a rough winter in Valdez means 400 inches of snow — about 33 feet — or more. That’s about four times what Boston got last winter. Sometimes residents of Valdez have to shovel out not just their doors, but their windows — to let light into their homes, he said.

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Valdezians generally accept the winter, he said.

“We try to make as much recreational use of it as we can,” he said. “We build a sledding hill at the grade school. We groom trails for cross-country skiing and folks kind of embrace it. Sometimes they get upset if there’s not enough snow. Which is — you know — weird, but it happens.”

Valdez kids don’t get excited about snow days, Weaver said, because there aren’t any. School does not close for snow. “It’s never happened for not being able to remove the snow from the streets,” he said.

“Not to be mean or anything — but we kind of laugh sometimes seeing people closing this and closing that,” Weaver said.

If embracing the snow is not possible, the alternative is getting away from it.

Last year, poet Henri Cole, during a Harvard fellowship, wrote a New Yorker essay on Boston’s record-breaking winter, titled “A Plague of Snow.”

“How long before life will return to normal?” he begged in the piece. “Why is Earth, our home, so angry at us?”

This winter, Cole has wised up: He is teaching at Claremont McKenna College, in the winter-free zone of Southern California, he said Tuesday via e-mail.

Cole wrote to the Globe:

“There will be no snow shoveling this year

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By the middle-aged poet.

And there will be no

Buried cars and

Ice dams from hell.

Just outdoor swims

In moonlight

And cocktails on the verandah.”


Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark