In a year where everything has changed, a change of seasons can feel particularly daunting. But winter is indeed coming, and making it through Manitoba’s coldest, darkest season during a global pandemic will require some self-care and creativity.
"All the seasons bring different routines and activities," says Marion Cooper, executive director of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association. "When we’re going through change as people… we’re having to make adaptations and that can challenge our coping strategies."
Those living with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, feel those changes more acutely and can experience depression, anxiety, irritability and extreme fatigue. Approximately five per cent of the population deals with SAD and Cooper says it’s reasonable to expect more people to feel low this winter.
"It makes sense to think about there being an amplification of mood issues that are impacted because of the seasons... and then probably exacerbated because of the pandemic and the physical distancing that we’re all required to do to keep our community safe," she says.
Getting enough sunlight, keeping a regular schedule and staying active can take the edge off the transition to winter, irrespective of whether you’re suffering from SAD.
Here are five more ways to take care of yourself and enjoy the season:
Shift your mindset
Winter may not be your favourite time of year, but your brain doesn’t need to know that. Reframing the way you think about the season can improve your mood and change your outlook.
"Try and approach winter with less dread and anticipation of the bitterness of the cold," Cooper says. "I’m trying to do that for myself. I always have enjoyed being able to get away during the winter, that’s likely not going to happen. How do I shift my thinking around surviving winter, but maybe thriving this winter?"
Instead of focusing on the fact that a hot vacation isn’t in the cards, Cooper is getting excited about winter activities she can do locally, such as ice skating or walking around The Forks.
"Try and approach winter with less dread and anticipation of the bitterness of the cold." – Marion Cooper
"I want to feel happy this winter. I don’t want to succumb to the angst of feeling negative about things."
You can start shifting your mindset now by making a list of goals and priorities for the season — but don’t turn it into a list of resolutions. Stick to items that add to your well-being, not your stress levels.
On the topic of resolutions, it’s important to realize that holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s will look different during the pandemic. Prepare to grieve the temporary loss of some traditions and brainstorm new ways to celebrate safely. This can offer something to look forward to in lieu of large family gatherings.
The hottest tip of all: remember that winter will in fact end (eventually) and a new season will start again.
Keep socializing, safely
Social distancing is necessary for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but staying six feet apart is going to be difficult as activities move indoors for the winter. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on socializing altogether.
The added isolation of the season can wreak havoc on mental health, so it’s important to stay connected to your social circle and support systems. That might mean getting back to virtual hangouts.
"We’ve had the last six months practising the use of technology to stay connected to friends and family and colleagues," Cooper says. "We would encourage people to use those same mechanisms, pick up the phone, have a Zoom conversation, FaceTime... those social connections are really important to buffer our well-being when we’re struggling with mood issues."
Seek additional help if winter hibernation becomes unpleasant. The Canadian Mental Health Association has a Bounce Back telephone coaching program designed for people experiencing low mood, mild to moderate depression or stress. A doctor referral is needed, details at bouncebackmb.ca.
"Don’t isolate and try and sort of tough it out," Cooper says. "If you are noticing significant mood changes, and it’s impacting your day-to-day functioning, talk to your primary care provider."
Practise healthy habits
Physical activity is a known mood booster and finding ways to exercise outdoors during the winter can provide some much needed Vitamin D.
Karin McSherry was born in Winnipeg but spent her formative years in Vancouver and California. Prairie winters took some getting used to when she returned to the city as an adult.
"I was not accustomed to the type of winter that we have here," she says, laughing.
Learning to cross-country ski made the season not only tolerable, but enjoyable. McSherry’s brother introduced her to the sport with a nighttime ski at Birds Hill Provincial Park in -25 C temperatures.
"You think that would have killed me but for some reason, I loved it," says McSherry, who is now the executive director of the Cross Country Ski Association of Manitoba.
The association represents 23 competitive and recreational ski clubs with about 2,000 members across the province. McSherry is expecting to see some new faces on the trails this winter, much like the uptick in cycling and golf over the summer.
"It’s a naturally physically-distanced sport," she says. "You can go out with friends and you know that two meter distance is pretty much built into the skis."
Those looking to try cross-country skiing for the first time can get in touch with their local club to inquire about lessons or ski groups. In Winnipeg, the Windsor Park Nordic Centre has all-ages lessons and equipment rental — although it’s unclear if COVID-19 restrictions will impact the centre’s operation this winter.
The association also keeps an updated list of cross-country ski trails in the province at ccsam.ca.
If skiing isn’t your forte, walking offers similar benefits. There’s also no shortage of workout apps or free exercise classes on YouTube. Aim to move your body for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
Good diet and sleep habits are equally important for mental and physical well-being. Drink lots of water, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and try to get to bed at the same time every night while avoiding screens.
Stock up on entertainment
There’s only so much Netflix a person can watch before boredom sets in. Finding different sources of indoor entertainment can help pass the time this winter with the looming possibility of a second lockdown.
Mona Zaharia, co-owner of Wolseley Wool, has been knitting all her life, but has found the hobby particularly soothing amid the pandemic.
"As a business owner, it’s been really stressful," she says. "I don’t know how I would have gotten through this without knitting or crocheting, or some kind of hand-craft because there’s a connection between your mind and your hands.
“For me, (knitting) has been really, really beneficial just to kind of calm down and stay in the moment because there’s so little that we can control in this.” – Mona Zaharia
"For me, (knitting) has been really, really beneficial just to kind of calm down and stay in the moment because there’s so little that we can control in this."
Wolseley Wool reopened over the summer and is currently running small, in-person knitting classes. They also sell "Stay Home Kits" complete with the fibre, tools and patterns needed to complete a knitting, crocheting, felting or needlepoint project.
If taking on a new hobby feels overwhelming, focus on things you already like doing. Pick up some art supplies, try a new recipe, download a video game or crack open a new book (and consider joining the Free Press Book Club while you’re at it). And if escapist TV is what your overstimulated brain needs, go forth and binge.
Embrace the outdoors
This should be no problem if you’ve already worked on changing your winter mindset. Embracing the cold opens a world of new outdoor activities during the pandemic — as long as you dress the part.
Weather appropriate attire makes it easier to spend time outside casually, like going for a lunchtime walk with co-workers or heading to the dog park with a friend.
Focus on function and stock up on wool socks, long underwear, sweaters, mitts and toques. Ski pants and proper boots should also be on the list if you really want to get serious about spending time outside.
Not sure what to do now that you’re properly suited? Some warm-weather activities are still possible when the temperature drops. Local bike shops rent out fat bikes, which have wider tires and can make for fun cycling in the snow. Backyard bonfires can be a safe way to stay warm and get together with friends during the winter. If you’re ambitious, you can class-up the latter idea with a homemade ice bar and snow seating area.
Get the kids excited about the weather by working on a snow fort together at home or in the local park. Plan weekend excursions to skating rinks and toboggan hills outside your neighbourhood — St. Vital Park is home to a wheelchair accessible toboggan slide. And, barring any autumn snowstorms, the river trail at The Forks will likely be back up and running this winter.
While there are plenty of unknowns this winter, there’s still much to look forward to.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.