Winter. It’s always been a question of survival. And in some ways, human beings are at a disadvantage: we can’t hibernate, we don’t grow thicker fur and most of us can’t afford to migrate. However, we make up for it with our big old brains. Winter is the reason we have fermented, canned, dried, smoked and cured foods in so many of our cuisines. It’s the reason we wear woollen clothes (just think – without winter we might not have knitting!). It’s definitely why we have centrally heated homes and hot water bottles.
But the meaning of survival has changed for we privileged Western Europeans. Even a mere century ago, and certainly two centuries ago, survival was, quite literally, about staying alive. It was about having sufficient food and fuel for the months when there was little to harvest or gather – and many people died.
These days, in this country, most of us don’t really have to worry about that. Not unless we’re homeless or very, very poor – and make no mistake; these people exist and are extremely vulnerable. They die. I’d probably be one of them if it weren’t for the fact that my mum lets me live in her home rent free, because my ESA payments are simply not enough for me to be able to pay rent, and council tax, and bills, and buy food, and pay for other essentials. Not even close.
Yet, even for the majority of us who don’t have to worry about food and shelter and fuel, winter is hard; it’s bloody hard. Yes, it’s beautiful. I LOVE winter. I love the shapes the trees make against the sky. I love the crisp chill in the air. I love how different everything looks. I truly adore snow; it’s like a manifestation of magic to me.
But it’s hard. The dark is long; the light short. You feel as though you never get enough sun. Actually, you never do: it’s recently been found that most people in Britain don’t get enough vitamin D during the winter months, and it’s also being realised just how important vitamin D is for all sorts of things, including good sleep, the immune system, and healthy teeth and bones. Light’s important too; specifically sunlight. It’s good for our eyes, and it’s good for our mood and it’s good for our sleep (unless, of course, we’re allergic to it!).
Then there’s the cold. It lowers our immune response, meaning we’re more likely to pick up the illnesses we can normally fight off. If you’ve got asthma, it can exacerbate that, too. It makes arthritis worse and can make a heart attack more likely. It makes some of us really antisocial, too! Being outside is harder in the winter; we have to be careful walking in case we slip on ice, and we have to wear three times as many clothes. The air tends to be less humid, so our skin gets dry and can crack.
And of course, many of us worry about our mood during the winter. I am. My depression is noticeably worse in the winter and this is the case for many people. Others suffer depression only in the winter, and still others may not experience actual depression but still have a distinct lowering of mood when the days are short. Perhaps, in some ways, this tendency to winter depression is the worst thing of all because depression makes everything worse, everything miserable.
So, as the geese take off for the winter, our pets start to grow thicker winter coats, the hedgehogs retreat into snug holes and squirrels store up food for the hard times, we can also start to prepare ourselves, to make sure we survive the winter as intact as possible. Here are a few things that I’m doing to prepare myself for winter, physically and mentally.
Keeping myself warm. It is as important as it is obvious! Oddly, it’s never been something I’ve had to worry about until I had ME/CFS. My body used to be amazing at keeping itself warm; now it’s merely average, or, on bad days, poor. So bed socks, long johns and jumpers it is for me this winter.
Using my SAD light. My mum and sister incredibly kindly clubbed together and bought me a big old SAD light last year. I didn’t use it as effectively as I could have but this year I am determined to do it properly in the hope that it will help my mood and my sleeping, both of which tend to suffer severely during the winter. Now’s the time to start, too: the days are drawing in and the sun isn’t as bright. Make sure to follow the instructions on the light – ten minutes two metres away isn’t likely to do much good! If you don’t have a SAD light, just using brighter lightbulbs can be helpful.
Taking multivitamins and vitamin D supplements. I’ve started taking multivitamins because my body doesn’t seem to retain vitamins the way it used to – in the last couple of years, I’ve ended up having a lot of blood tests and have almost always been deficient in some vitamin or mineral; the specific one varies. I eat a pretty varied and nutritional diet, so I take multivitamins, hoping that they’ll just boost my vitamin and mineral level. As for vitamin D, I mentioned above that the vitamin D level of most British people plummets in the winter, and it’s a seriously important nutrient. Boosting your levels will be worth it.
Making sure that a good selection of Things I Enjoy are available to me. I’ve got a whole stack of books to read. I will buy food I like. I’ve got a good collection of DVDs I love. I’ve got plenty of candles in stock – and not just for power cuts! I’ve got various craft projects. I’ve got a novel idea. Maybe you enjoy hot scented baths, wine, chocolate, parties, dying your hair, playing board games or housework. Whatever it is, try to make sure you’ve got a steady supply of things that make you happy.
Keeping talking to people. Socialisation, even for introverts, is really important, and it’s even easier in the winter than it is normally to feel lonely and isolated. People don’t want to leave their houses, and who can blame them! Make the effort, if you can, to see people, and if you can’t, then do what you can. Texting, calling, instant messaging, even writing letters. Having good people in your life is important.
Keeping an eye on my sleep hygiene. I regularly sleep badly, and while one of my ME/CFS symptoms is unrefreshing sleep, no sleep is even worse. Last winter, my sleep got really out of control, and as I can’t work and therefore have nothing I must get up for, I ended up regularly getting up at one or two or later in the afternoon. That meant not only that I went to sleep later and thus perpetuated the cycle, but also that, with the sun setting in the late afternoon, I really got almost no daylight. This time around I’m making a real effort to go to bed at a sensible time and the same with getting up. I’m hoping that the vitamin D supplements and using my SAD light in the mornings will help with this, too.
Doing the practical stuff. Ok, I haven’t actually done any of this yet, but it is important. Having candles in the house in case of power cuts (which is a far smaller possibility since we now live in a new build, but in our old house hours-long cuts were a regular occurrence, and power-cuts lasting a couple of days not uncommon). Buying grit and salt (although, again, not having a ludicrously steep driveway should help). Altering the heating so the house stays warm enough; making sure the outside lights still work. It’s just better not to be taken by surprise.
I’m hesitant about including exercise, because it is harmful to people with ME/CFS, but staying as active as one can is important in the winter. Exercise is, of course, a thing that can help some people with depression, and it’ll help just as much in the winter as in the summer. And for healthy people it is one thing a person can do to help to stay that way. But more than that, just standing up and moving about a bit helps with circulation and therefore staying warm. Doing what activity I can, without pushing myself, will, I know, be helpful both for my mood and for my physical health.
Feel free to post your own winter preparation techniques!