Winter Musings: Adjust, Prepare, or Just Keep Going?

Photo by Sarah Luczaj

A time to slow down and recharge, or a dark nightmare of miserable tension? A lot depends on whether we have to keep going with our usual hectic lives…and on our attitude. Here are some things I have learned from winter in Poland.

I am writing this from Poland, it’s minus ten, and all I can see from my window is white. The situation is similar in much of Northern Europe, with record low temperatures and snowfall being recorded. I have got into the habit of asking people how they like the winter, and it seems that people fall into two, very distinct, camps — the lovers and the haters.

Winter sports enthusiasts have an obvious reason to be happy. Let the adrenaline flow! So it seems, do writers, for whom the lack of pleasant and tempting distractions outside is a blessing, allowing them to stay indoors and concentrate. Those who have been secretly thirsting for solitude are happy to be cut off from the world by snow. Winter allows some to switch gears, to recharge and balance themselves — it’s the introvert’s time of year.

For others, winter is a nightmare, both practically and psychologically speaking. It is difficult to get anywhere, arrangements become unpredictable, we feel isolated, or suffer from cabin fever with those we live with, and the lack of light gets us down on a very physical level that affects our mood deeply. If we are trapped by snow and ice, we miss sheer physical movement, we comfort eat and feel lazy and unhealthy. One of my personal bugbears is the way I tense up muscles I didn’t know I had all over my body every time I walk on the ice — constantly preparing for a fall, although I well know that the more relaxed I am, the less likely I am to injure myself!

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It seems to me that if we are able to adjust our lives in order to fit the conditions — sleep more, for example, and travel less, then we can click into the natural rhythm of the seasons, by calming down and paying some attention to what is close to home. In the UK, for example, when snow comes the country has a tendency to grind to a halt and there can be (particularly for schoolchildren) a giddy sense of having been given some extra time. But when you have to get to work as normal, and you have to get up at the same time, although it is pitch black outside, it feels like a strain, having to work against our bodies, as well as our natural wisdom, that tells us what is safe and what is not, when to go out, and when to put another log on the fire and stay in.

From my own experience as a British girl coming to live in Poland, I can say that the attitude to ‘keeping going’ is a very cultural thing, and that apart from suffering ‘winter discomfort’ beyond my wildest dreams, I’ve also learned something important. When I hear from friends and media sources in the UK — and I hear it frequently — that the nation is just unprepared for snow, I always chuckle inside. While I am sure there are plenty of countries with some more money at their disposal and better organisation who are well prepared for the snow, everything carries on in Poland: schools open in minus 25, kids walk along the roads packed with a deep hard layer of ice and snow to catch the bus at 7 am, and people drive along roads whose conditions are so bad you could not make it up. No-one expects a better version of reality to be served up by the government. No-one more than idly imagines that it could or should be any better than it is.

In fact the difference is one of mental framework. If you are comparing a road to how it should be — say black tarmac, with the edges clearly visible — then you are likely to find a sheer white expanse, completely indistinguishable from the deep ditches and fields on either side of it, a problem. You are likely to say to yourself that this is crazy and you can’t do it. Official authorities will back this up. The norm is safety and comfort.

If you are not comparing the road to anything, just mobilising all your resources to meet the challenge, you are likely to arrive at your destination. This is what I have learned, in a nutshell. On the other hand, while most people cope with walking on the ‘pavements’ and driving on the roads admirably, there are still many people falling over and breaking bones, and a significant number of people freezing to death each year. How to keep conditions as safe as possible, while not somehow spiriting away people’s resourcefulness?

What are your experiences of winter?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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