As I sit writing this, my Costco-purchased light therapy box is illuminating my keyboard. Lack of light where I live can make me and my fellow suburbanites rather sun-starved. Recent conversations I have had with friends include the beaches we’d like to be occupying, the sunlight we are craving or the absence of social events. It’s funny how I can live across the street from someone, drive their kids to school and know what’s going on in their lives via text or email and yet never actually see them. In the warmer months, we may ride the kids to school on our bikes, stop in our driveways to chat or engage in backyard barbeques. But now, as the winter darkness and cold compel us to wrap hands around a warm mug or cuddle up in blankets, we see less of each other.
What do we as humans, I wonder, have in common with our fellow earth-dwellers who do hibernate? Those species who hibernate are characterized by their ability to slow down their heart rates so they are barely detectable and reduce their metabolism and oxygen consumption to levels that are just above what is required to actually stay alive. So, those nights as I am sitting on my couch, cocooned in a heavy throw, lights dimmed and barely moving: Is that hibernation? As any parent knows, that “barely moving” part lasts for approximately two minutes before you need to spring into action at the call of a child, the ding of the dryer completing a cycle or the overflow of a dinner pot on the stove. And oh those dark chilly mornings! My bed begs, literally pleads for me to stay! But alas, life continues it’s frenetic pace. Yet another by-product of winter is the domino-effect of illness. You hear one kid has it at school and no sooner than you can boil the tea kettle, your clan has the chills, the pukes, the crud. C’est la vie! No hibernation for you!
Well, what about seasonal affective disorder? Isn’t that a little like hibernation? In fact, SAD does share some “symptoms” with SAD such as avoidance of social contact, desire to oversleep, lethargy and lessened physical contact. However, with SAD, people tend to gain weight in the winter months as a side effect of overconsumption of carbohydrates (ie: bread slathered in butter, gooey chocolate chip cookies. yumm… I digress) combined with inability to tolerate stress which ups cortisol production, resulting in…you guessed it! Five additional pounds on the scale! Also, in SAD, people under-exercise because of depression so those pounds really add up. Conversely, bears aren’t depressed, irritable or socially withdrawn. They are just fucking asleep.
In the book and on the website “Better Together,” Harvard psychologists and researchers have studied extensively how the idea of “social capital,” basically that our well-being is directly tied to our trust in and willingness to engage with others. By the same token, doesn’t it feel good when a few hearty folks organize a happy hour? Or when you gather some friends for an impromptu game night? In fact, joining a group of some kind boosts your life expectancy. Even better if it’s a group where you are actually burning off some comforting carbs, such as an adult soccer league or running group! Whatever it is, whatever you heart desires, your connection to your peers is what makes the difference between being feeling cut off and being in your cave. My husband and I have been talking for weeks about having a happy hour at our house with our friends. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s on the horizon.
On the other hand, there are some wonderful perks to this time of year. Yummy soups and stews aromatically waiting for you in the crock pot. Hot chocolate with marshmallows after a day in the cold. Fuzzy socks in which to wiggle your toes. Football whistles screeching from the television as the family huddles together to watch. The swooshing sound of skis through thick snow. The cozy feel of down, fleece and thick cotton. A snuggle with the kids and dog. And as the beautiful photo above from my friend Barbara shows, a warm crackling fire with a purring cat.