A few years ago, with the gusto of a gal who thought she had discovered something truly novel about herself, I told my therapist that I’d had a revelation:
(all caps are the points at which I accentuated my statement in a sing-songy voice to capture how I sort of mansplained my so-called revelation to my therapist)
I told her that by being AWARE of how dark and gloomy my mind could get when it was similarly dark and gloomy during Chicago’s cold and long WINTER, I could use MINDFULNESS to recognize that part of the reason I was feeling bummed out was the WEATHER.
The bad feelings would come, but now I had a key to UNDERSTAND, at least in part, why they were there. By putting those bad feelings into CONTEXT, I would at least take some POWER away from them.
She smiled and sort of laughed and said:
Yeah, and you could also try doing things to prevent those bad feelings.
People, this is the kind of gold we pay therapists for. This actual revelation truly knocked me on my ass. I was not previously aware that I didn’t just have to be mindful about how sad and anxious I got during the winter. I could actually use that mindfulness to try to be proactive about it.
Let me be clear here that I have not been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder. I have the kind of seasonal struggles many of us do — I am more irritable, more anxious, groggier, grumpier, less focused, and can get that general feeling of malaise that really sets in around mid-March in Chicago, when all remnants of snow are coated in a thick layer of black bus exhaust and you start forgetting how or why it was ever possible to go outside without your puffy coat. My recommendations are intended for folks with similarly unpleasant but ultimately benign feelings.
So with the charge from my therapist to try to take an offensive approach to seasonal sadness, I researched a few things to do during the cold months that might help keep my spirits up. Here’s what’s working for me so far.
Journaling & meditating
I do this all year round but it comes in handy even more in the winter. When the spirit moves me, I write in a journal about my feelings and do a little meditating with the Calm app. Both of these activities help me sort through my feelings and quiet my brain. It’s helpful to look back through old journal entries and look for patterns or see how I’ve grown.
I’m a bit of a lush when it comes to paper products (don’t get me started on how many different sets of thank you cards I own). When I first started my journaling habit, I invested in some nice notebooks and pens so I would look forward to journaling. Unlike many aspirational investment tools that fell to the wayside never to be used again (looking at you, spiralizer), I filled up the first round of notebooks I bought and used up all the pens. I keep going back and re-ordering these same special tools again and again.
Calm is free for basic use but I like the paid version so I can do the daily meditations. It’s $60/year ($5/month but they want you to make a habit out of it which I respect.)
Having somewhere warm to look forward to has been an amazing light in the middle of the long tunnel of winter. Last year I took a girl’s trip to Miami. This year my family is going to Hawaii.
This is a pretty privileged recommendation. While going somewhere truly tropical is nice, if you’re living a bit more frugally you can replicate the effects by:
- Traveling somewhere close. Aaron and I took our first vacation together to Milwaukee in mid-February many moons ago and fucking loved it. We saw great art and were buzzed on local beer approximately 65% of the time we were there. It was cheap and fun and got us out of our normal routine and making new memories together, which is where a lot of the joy of travel comes from no matter how far from home it is. (This is saccharine but also true!)
- Making time for new experiences close to home. Sometimes you don’t even need to leave home to have those lovely, spirit-lifting experiences! We went to the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette the other weekend and it was beautiful, transcendent, totally free, and less than a 40-minute drive from our house. Maybe there is something else fun and notable that you haven’t made time to see in your backyard that you could make a special occasion out of seeing when it’s cold outside?
- Getting yourself to a greenhouse. I love going to the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago because it is warm and verdant and also costs exactly zero dollars. Perhaps you have a similar plant-filled spot near you that will lift your winter spirits?
Buying a CorePower package
Don’t have enough money to travel but want to go somewhere warm? Like really fucking warm? Sign up for some hot yoga.
I buy 5-class packs at CorePower during the winter months and go when I want to feel warm down to my bones. There are few things as delightful as feeling sweat drip profusely down my arms in downward dog as I look between my legs and out the window to see a blizzard impaling the city outside. I say to myself, “Haha! I’m better than you, blizzard!” and it is not true but I’ll pay $25/class to think that for 60 minutes.
For a frugal option maybe try blasting the heat in your place and doing some YouTube yoga. My coworkers swear by Yoga with Adrienne. For those who’d prefer something free and endorphin-boosting that’s not yoga, I’ve been a fan of FitnessBlender workouts for years.
Joining a wine club
When I visited my friends Amy and Dan in Oakland (hey pals!), they took me to their neighborhood wine club pick-up party and it was the cutest and loveliest thing. I mentally bookmarked “joining a wine club” as something I might do in the future when I felt fancy enough.
I will never feel fancy enough to join a wine club, and yet I have joined one. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, I look forward to it every month, and it gets me out of my apartment.
I joined in December and plan on canceling whenever it is consistently above 50 degrees in Chicago (ideally May, probably June). Like carving out more time for travel or investing in a CorePower package, I’ve found that peppering these special experiences that I’ve set aside just for Winter gives me reasons to look forward to a season with a sparse repertoire of natural things to love about it (unlike its sister Summer who’s got bike riding, street festivals, and patio drinking).
I’m not a great runner, but I’ve found that running in the winter is something I enjoy since the drive to keep my body warm makes me move faster. I use Strava to track my runs and get encouragement from my pals (hi Mike and Bonnie!). If you’re looking for a place to get started, I posted some photos on my profile with a program I found in a beginner’s running book for athletic people who want to become better runners. If you are feeling amped about getting into running and want to buy that beginner’s running book, it’s this one.
Getting the right gear
I almost finished this post without writing about the pieces of clothing that have truly changed my life as a public transit commuting Chicagoan in this very walkable and extremely cold city!!
Prior to living in Chicago, I lived in Michigan, where you actually have to be outside all of 2 minutes per day in the winter as you go from your house to your car and your car to work and back again. Not so in Chicago! You need some higher performance gear to keep you toasty during that seven-minute walk to the train and the 4 — ??? wait for the next one to arrive while standing on an icy exposed platform. That gear will also need to sustain you for the 3 to 15-minute walk from your train stop to your office, and through the reverse of that commute when you go home at the end of the day and it’s even colder now that it’s dark outside.
I was pretty miserable my first few winters in Chicago because it was legendarily cold and I was severely under-dressed. (Don’t worry mom, this is a literary technique called hyperbole, I wasn’t that miserable, you don’t need to send me an email about it. I’m serious.)
Here’s some of the winter gear I have accumulated over the years that I love fiercely because it keeps me warm and happy:
- Patagonia Nano Puff jacket: I don’t think I own a piece of clothing I love more than this. Keeps you perfectly warm during that stretch of fall/winter /spring that is too warm for the massive puffy jacket but not warm enough for a jean jacket, which is like 4–6 months out of the year in Chicago.
- Patagonia Better Sweater: I mean, come on, do I even need to say anything about this sweater? I love a good quarter zip.
- Patagonia Better Sweater gloves: The perfect glove/mitten mix! Gloves make my fingers cold, mittens prevent me from texting, these bbs deliver on everything I am looking for.
- LL Bean Bean Boots: LL Bean has been mired in political backlash and backlash-backlash since 2016, but before all that I bought these boots and I am a big, big fan of how warm and dry they keep my feet. They are perfect when layered with wool socks at helping you safely navigate not-too-intense snowfall.
- Teva Foxy Ankle Boots: When I got my Bean Boots I also bought these Teva booties that have ACTUAL TRACTION ON THE BOTTOM meaning I do not slip and fall on my ass when it’s slushy and icy outside. And they look cute. (Why is it so hard to find cute boots that have some traction on the bottom? Why are so many women’s shoes designed to probably kill us??)
- Braidy Choker: I got Aaron this cowl/scarf thing when I was in Paris a few years ago (mild Paris flex ooh la la!) but now I steal it constantly because he is a naturally warm person and I am very much not. It is the warmest, softest, best thing ever when you need the kind of face coverage that protects your entire nose and mouth from icy temperatures. His is in a cuter color but I linked to a comparable one.
- Uniqlo Heattech Leggings: A perfect layering piece when it gets to the single digits or below.
- Carhart hat: My dad’s favorite brand of construction work clothes has been adopted by thousands of hipsters (including me!). They make an exceptionally warm hat in a variety of nice colors. I feel like I slept on the power of a real ass hat for the first two decades of my life and tried to keep my ears warm with headbands and the like. If you’re a miserable cold person like I am, just wear a damn hat already. You probably look cute in it and are just overthinking your face shape.
Some of this stuff is $$$. I should note that I accumulated this wardrobe slowly over 6 years of living in Chicago, and asked for a lot of this stuff (or money towards it) as birthday/Christmas presents. It gives me a very sincerely warm and fuzzy feeling to think about how much better I have become at facing the elements simply by investing in a few quality pieces over time.
Putting this list together was a nice exercise in recognizing the patterns that are consistent across what I do in the winter to keep me happy:
- novel activities reserved especially for the season,
- endorphin-driving activities like yoga and running,
- opportunities for reflection like journaling and meditating, and
- things that keep me warm in any shape or form.
I hope that regardless of budget, location, or affinity for wine-drinking that something on this list gives you the inspiration to try something proactive to lift your spirits when it’s cold out.
If you’ve got a unique approach to tackling seasonal sadness, please share it with me. I (and my therapist) will be grateful.