Embracing Winter – Long Nights and All
I’ll confess to loving summers, but over the last few winters I’ve tried to do better at enjoying the colder season with its shortened days and dark nights. Several years ago, with a group of clients and friends, I decided to start marking the shortest and longest days of the year with a sunrise walk and a sunset toast, both overlooking the water as we are very fortunate to do in Rye. When, in 2020, our family holiday routine changed and we started traveling back to Scotland for Christmas and New Year’s where we got two to two-and-a-half fewer hours of daylight than in Rye, I decided to up my efforts as the nights “were fair drawing in” as the common refrain goes in Scotland.A study in Norway conducted by American Health Psychologist Kari Leibowitz, which included residents of Tromso (where the sun doesn’t rise at all from December to February), found that the farther north subjects lived, the more positive their mindset and approach to winter. Leibowitz says, “The first step is acceptance. Accept winter for what it is – colder and darker.”
Last Christmas, a family gift was tickets to a concert an hour away from where we stay. With the sun setting at 3:30 p.m., I could have cried at the thought of having to get on a train in darkness a couple of hours later. This year I told the family I was going to lean in to Scottish winter hours, and I stuck to that promise, mainly seeing extended family and friends for lunch or very early dinners. The difference it made to my energy level and enthusiasm was marked.
Leibowtiz encourages us to “embrace the season for quiet, contemplative pursuits.” In my research, I found that traditional Chinese medicine takes this a step further, emphasizing introspection and incubation. The winter season is related to the water element, and just as water is tranquil and quiet, nature during the winter season is calm, peaceful, and at rest. This resting time allows nature to work internally, storing energy and preparing for spring. Humans should follow nature’s example. Accupuncturist Neil Gumenick, in his article titled “The Season of Water,” writes, “Like the seed that cannot sprout until it has gathered sufficient strength, our ideas and plans cannot manifest with strength if our energy is dispersed or drained.”
The Danish word “hygge” and the Norwegian word “Koselig” don’t have direct translations into English, but are used to convey “cozy, safe, togetherness.” Lighting contributes to that feeling, and Leibowitz notes that in Norway, far from banishing darkness, it’s invited in along with low lighting, candles, and fires in homes and restaurants. Being together with family this Christmas in our family home shortly after my dad passed away, my brother took charge of cleaning out the fireplace and tending the wood-fire and candles. I definitely felt some “Holiday Hygge.”
Thinking more scientifically, I’ve listened to several lectures by professor of circadian neuroscience, Russell Foster. (I also bought his book, “Life Time,” but at 500 pages it’ll take a couple more winters to get through it!) He began the first lecture I listened to with “O sleep, O gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse” so he had me at Shakespeare.
Our internal clock regulates every system in the body and our behavior, and the light-dark cycle is its most important signal. Fighting seasonal light means we are also fighting against our circadian rhythms and the consequences of this can be dire.
Sleep and our waking cycles are the most obvious thing affected. Foster reports that with multiple time-zone crosses, the immune system is disrupted and you are less able to fight off bacterial infection. It may also be why there are higher rates of cancer in long-term nightshift workers, and metabolic abnormalities, such as diabetes and obesity. Depression and psychosis are made much worse by sleep and circadian rhythm disruption. Poor sleep causes irritability and loss of empathy. Fascinatingly, the brain forgets the positive experiences and remembers the negative ones.
So, if you’re wondering where I stand on the great clock-change debate, I am absolutely on the side of keeping the system as it is and continuing to “fall back.” It’s well accepted that our school hours are in severe conflict with our teens’ circadian rhythms. That’s shame enough, but with the additional data that drowsy driving too early in the morning is just as dangerous as drunk driving, do we really want even sleepier and more distracted pedestrians and inexperienced drivers making their way to school in the dark?