A quick story about my dog before getting to the heart of this blog. It will make sense soon, so please bear with me! When my dog was young, we took her to puppy training – she did very well and so did we!  And then I had a small shoulder injury which meant that when I walked her, I could not let her pull at all on the leash because there was a chance I would re-injure my shoulder. So, we got a “halty” for her which is a device that fits around her nose and attaches to her collar and her leash. When she walks a little bit ahead of me, her pulling creates tension between the leash and the halty and this tension results in her head turning to come back closer to me – and her body follows. 

As our trainer had said, “a dogs’ body will follow their head.” So it works out brilliantly, and I’ve come to realize as I was preparing this blog that for people, our body often follows our head as well. So, what do I mean by that? 

Let’s take the current season….it’s winter, the days are darker, and we are living in a pandemic.  Even without the pandemic, in winter I hear a lot of my patients saying things like: “I hate winter,” “Winter is depressing,” “I’m going to be depressed soon.”   It’s very easy, if we are not aware of what is happening, that our body will follow our head. As our head tells us how terrible winter is and how we’re going to feel for the next four to six months, it’s very easy for our body to follow our head and act accordingly. We stay in bed longer, maybe we don’t eat properly, we don’t get outside, we don’t exercise, we get less daylight, we may have less social contact, we are less productive, we essentially hibernate.  And our mood declines.  As our mood declines, all the stuff I just mentioned can intensify. All of which is more likely in a pandemic.  

 I think it’s really important to look beyond “It’s winter” as the cause of our declining mood and think about how the variables mentioned above might be interacting for you. Yes, your mood may very well be lower in the winter, and if the season is not the only factor, there may be things you can do to help yourself. I asked sleep physician, Dr. Cara Ooi (MD, FRCPC) to provide some additional perspective and here is what she had to say:

 The body clock (or circadian rhythm system) has a profound influence on alertness at different points of its 24-hour cycle.  Though the timing of the clock is influenced by our underlying preference (most teens tend to be night owls), the timing of the clock can be pushed earlier or later in response to environmental and behavioural “time-setters”.  The most powerful time setter is light.

 Without enough morning and daytime bright light, the clock naturally drifts later.  Too much light in the evening and throughout the night also shifts the clock later.  This clock delay is common during the winter months (when there is less sunlight and we spend less time outside) and when there is a loss of daytime activities and structure (like during the COVID-19 school closures).  This out-of-sync clock is a common and powerful factor that fuels difficulties falling asleep, struggles waking up, and grogginess in the morning.

 If you live in Ontario, then winter is a ‘given.” We need to adapt and to do that, we sometimes need some help.  Below are some suggestions based in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that may help you to get out of our head, followed by some additional suggestions from Dr. Ooi  if sleep is an issue for you! 

 It may help to spend a few days noticing what thoughts show up and derail you. Perhaps you will notice judgments about yourself or the winter, predictions about what will happen, thoughts of past and future winters, or ideas of the catastrophe that awaits? Becoming more aware of our thoughts gives us some predictability and opportunity for control. Knowing what thoughts to expect, we will be more likely to notice them when they show up and less likely to be taken by surprise. When they show up, we can acknowledge them as simply “thoughts” nothing more, nothing less. 

We can then turn our attention to the moment, with our five senses, and step into the present – out of our heads! What do you see, hear, taste, touch, or smell? What can you notice around you? Noticing the present and accepting it for what it is can be vital when the moment is something we cannot change. Yes, it’s colder – if we accept this, we dress accordingly. 

 As you bring your attention into the moment, I invite you to try to find the things that sparkle, the things that shine differently in winter.  What can you see on the bare tree branches that you could not see when the leaves were blocking your view?  Notice the sound of your shoes on the crunchy leaves or when you walk on the different types of snow. Notice the snowflakes when they touch your skin, or the shapes as you watch them fall. Notice the sensation of cold on your skin.  As you pull ourself back into the moment, you may find beauty, if so, enjoy!

That said, the present moment is not always happy or joyous, yet if we are in it, we are in a better position to deal with it. Yes, having to shovel your sidewalk may not be fun, and it may be fun, let your experience give you the answer. Even if it’s not ‘fun,” it will likely be less awful if you can accept the reality of the situation and adapt! Don’t leave shoveling to the last minute, get a shovel you like and can work with, and dress accordingly.  

Once back in the moment, I’d also invite you to consider what matters about your present moment. As you go through your day, what qualities from inside yourself do you want to bring forward? This is not about what you want from others or the end result, it’s about the journey, for you! If being kind, patient, and caring matters to you, try to bring that to your day in terms of what you do and how you do it. If being a caring member of your community matters, remind yourself of this as you shovel snow – I can guarantee you will be making the day easier for those in your community who are mobility impaired (a personal plea, please shovel so that seniors who can’t navigate icy or snowy sidewalks don’t have to stay inside in winter). It may help to find a way to remind yourself of who you want to be and what matters as you try to change your winter habits. 

 Dr. Ooi offers these suggestions for sleep struggles: 

The first suggestion is to get as much light as you can after waking up.  This will help anchor your clock on a regular schedule and keep it from drifting later.  Open your blinds.  Go outside.  Use a light wake-up alarm.  Avoid wearing sunglasses and dark environments in the morning and during the day.  The second is to reduce evening light (starting a 3-5 hours before sleep) as much as possible.  Turn off or dim unnecessary lights.  Install blue light blocking filters on your electronics.  Consider blue light blocking glasses. Third, try to maintain as consistent a wake-up time as possible.   While it makes sense if you are exhausted, sleeping later also allows your clock to drift later. 

For more tips and information, please visit decodeinsomnia.com.  

We hope these suggestions are helpful to you as we head into our pandemic winter. Try to get your sleep on track, get outside during the day, do fun stuff, exercise, be social in whatever way you can do so, safely, be productive, and try to find the unexpected beauty – you might as well, winter isn’t going to stop! One last suggestion – make SMALL changes, and make one at a time, set yourself up for success! 

Hoping the pic  inspires!