This is Your Brain in Winter

By Valerie Andrews

Photo by Naomi Tamar on Unsplash

December is the time of year for partying and decorating, for gift-giving  and for holiday travel.  Yet it’s also a time of stress and over-indulgence, shopping madness, traffic jams and holiday blues.  How do we manage to enjoy the season and keep our spirits bright? 

The answer is simple: Build in some time for centering and self-renewal. Spend  a lazy morning in the comfort of your bed, an afternoon making your favorite soup, an evening of deep quiet, sitting by the fire.  The best winter prescription is to simply hunker down at home.    

The Danes have a word for this. They call it hygge (pronounced hue-gah).  This home-ly philosophy celebrates our creature comforts, and urges us to  luxuriate in a feeling of coziness and contentment.  Two years ago it gave rise to a worldwide movement.  Now recent research shows this domestic practice is essential for our health.

Our Thinking Changes with the Seasons

Slowing down is necessary to decompress and give the brain a break from its usual overwork and overstimulation.   

A Belgian study has just made clear how short-term memory changes with the seasons.  In winter, we have less capacity to focus our attention, as if a portion of our thinking has just gone underground.  Winter is not the time for processing mounds of external data—it’s the time to draw within and bring our thoughts back to more homely matters.

In The Organized Mind, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains that we’re suffering from the constant noise of information overload. In 2011, he notes that Americans consumed five times as much information as 25 years prior; outside of work we process roughly 100,000 words every day.  This, in effect, jams the brain and keeps us from doing deep creative work.   Or making the kind of connections that help to find meaning of our lives.   

Most of the year we are distracted by technology and seduced into overusing our executive function. The result is a kind of brain exhaustion.   Biologically, our brains need a long, dark winter to reset.

A another study on the Science of Mind Wandering notes  the importance of daydreaming and stream of consciousness. In the 19th century this was also known as “wool-gathering” for aimless walks through the countryside to gather sheep’s wool that had caught on low-lying branches.  

Your brain doesn’t have to go into full hibernation mode — just letting your thoughts roam casually from one subject to the next will bring new insights, and a sense of self-renewal. Far from a useless task, this kind of day-dreaming assists us in our search for pattern and meaning. 

Coping with the Winter Blues

Photo by Kent Henderson on Unsplash

Our emotions are affected in winter, too, as the light fades, lowering our levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin.  Some 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the onset of sadness and depression triggered by lack of sunlight—and another 10 to 20 percent of the population may respond with milder symptoms. For many the cure is simple: Exposure to bright artificial light that mimics outdoor light. Or sitting in front of a light box or wear a light for 30- to 60 minutes.  Other simply accept that depression is a function of the northern latitudes.

Yet there are other more personal reasons people feel distressed in December.  Call it the ghost of Christmas past—the way holidays can dredge up difficult memories. How your parents split around the holidays,  or  your partner stormed out the night you were putting up the tree. The year you got the cancer diagnosis.  Or spent the holidays alone in a foriegn city.   It can be hard to reconcile these feelings of abandonment with what’s supposed to be “the most magical time of the year.” 

Therapists are alert to a rise in loneliness around the holidays, and to the extra stress their patients may experience as they head off to family gatherings.   And indeed, they worry about their own burn-out as the clients call for extra sessions.

 “Commercials and Christmas stories act as if everyone has a loving, supportive family with whom to spend their holidays,” says  Joel Young, MD, Medical Director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine near Detroit,  in Psychology Today.   “Movies treat family feuds as hilarious, not heartbreaking. In reality, most people have some disputes with family members. For some, the holiday season means going home to abusive parents or siblings, or deciding whether to spend time with unkind in-laws.”

To avoid family conflict during the holidays, here’s some helpful advice from relationship experts, Helen Hunt and Harville Hendrix.

  • Agree before any event that politics will be off limits along with any other subjects that are likely to trigger the brain’s “fight or flight” response. If you don’t have these safeguards in place, you’re likely to see both sides of “fight or flight”  in action.  Somebody will attack, then somebody will storm out.
  • After you set the ground rules for conversation, considering adding a ritual of affirmation—a simple way to tell each person present, “I value you, I appreciate you as you are.” Ask each guest to name one trait they’re thankful for in the person sitting next to them.

“The key is to put a hold on any conversation where anyone will feel criticized, ganged up on or attacked,” Harville says.  “Then make sure each guest feels seen and honored.”

The holidays can be especially hard on those who are grieving—it often doesn’t feel right to go through the same old rituals without a loved one there.  For two years after my father died, my mother and I put on Hawaiian music and danced the hula around a tiny Christmas eve.  There was a raging storm outside, but we turned up the heat so the living room felt almost sultry.  This helped us to forget the hours we’d spent caroling with my father, harmonizing to “Deck the Halls” and “Silent Night.”  

Annual traditions can be painful if you’re mourning a lost friend or family member. “Perhaps you just can’t face Christmas morning without your mother, or maybe watching It’s a Wonderful Life without your spouse feels weird,” says Dr. Young.  “Times of grief are a good time to re-evaluate your traditions. Replace the painful ones with new traditions, since this can keep your mind off of your grief. But don’t negate the value of indulging in a few old favorites, especially if they help the holidays feel like something worth celebrating.

The Body Needs Attention, Too.

Winter is a time when the body also needs a little extra TLC. And I’m not just talking about trying to ward off the usual colds, chills and flu.

A new study links this season to a rise in major illness. Professor John Todd, Director of the JDRF/Wellcome Trust Diabetes and Inflammation Laboratory, reports that our immune function changes in winter and we are more likely to suffer serious setbacks, “In some ways, it’s obvious – (yet this study) it helps explain why so many diseases, from heart disease to mental illness, are much worse in the winter months.”  Until now, doctors hadn’t fully appreciated how often this occurred and why we are prone to sudden downturns in our health.

Other data show we have increased risk of slip and fall, and of fender benders, every winter. More reasons to slow down and listen to the body’s cues.

What does all this scientific research tell us? That we have come into the modern age depending on our ancient brain and biology.  While some think we’re just a hair’s breadth away from the machine-mind meld, I beg to differ.  The fact is that our bodies are still old fashioned and very much tied to the seasons.  The insights of evolutionary biology are clear:  Each winter, we are called upon to address some deep and mysterious change that is taking place on the level of our cells.  

Photo by Pascal Müller on Unsplash

Though we place ourselves at the top of the evolutionary chart, we must still do what all other creatures and natural systems do—slow down and take sufficient time to rest. 

Winter’s not about getting on with business as usual, it’s about surrender.  Animals know this. They sleep longer, and are less active this time of year.  Look at the way your dog curls up by the fire and dozes for the afternoon.  He’s not just lazy.  He’s producing more melatonin, a hormone that regulates his sleep cycle, and less serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects his mood.  

The entire animal kingdom rests according to the season. Song birds go silent and no longer try to attract a mate.  Hamsters show a drop in sex hormones. Even the gerbil gets off the wheel and goes into a form of hibernation. Curling up in a nice soft den is what every creature longs for in the colder climes—not just the sleepy bear.

Nature seeks a balance between activity and rest. And winter is our corrective for an over-scheduled, over-stimulating year. 

That is why it’s important to pare back on your schedule, and do less instead of more.  Yes, the holiday is a special time for socializing and for sharing.  Yet it’s also a mandate to  embrace the quiet, to trust in a creative process that takes place underground and out of sight.  Think of it this way: Deep winter is a time for letting ourselves go fallow until we know the stillness of the seed.

Returning to Our Natural Rhythms

In agrarian times, and in the centuries before electricity, celebrations brought us out of our huts and face to face with our neighbors—after days of cabin fever. The holidays were a necessary counterpoint to weeks on end of isolation and idleness.  Today they are an add-on to our already busy schedules and we fail to get the dose of introversion that we need.

In the 1930s, the Swiss psychoanalyst C.G. Jung told a journalist from the New York Sun, “Americans must say no,”  and learn how to step back from their conventional drives and expectations.

“What America needs in the face of the tremendous urge toward uniformity, desire of things, the desire for complications in life, for being like one’s neighbors…is one great healthy ability to say, “No.”  To rest a minute and realize that many of the things being sought as unnecessary to a happy life….We want simplicity,  We are suffering in our cities, from a need to simply things. We would like to see our great… terminals deserted,  the streets deserted, a great peace descend upon  us.”  (JS, pp 48-69)

Photo by Filip Bunkins on Unsplash

Jung refers to “our unconscious wish for deserted places, quiet, inactivity,” and for a vacation from technology that “begets dissatisfaction with work or with life (and) estranges man from his natural versatility of action.” (CW 18 para 405)

So why not leave some open spaces in your holiday planning —  unplug from your devices and grant yourself the gift of Open Time?  This is the perfect opportunity to go inward. To listen to your dreams, to journal and to meditate. To set your intentions and think about the life-changes you want to make in the months ahead.

Don’t wait for January 1st to do this kind of summing up. Start your own winter rituals. Use the waning of the light to draw inward and jumpstart your creative process.  

With these  tasks taken care of, you can engage whole-heartedly in group celebrations — and be more fully present.  

Remember, on holidays, we get to explore what Jung called “our versatility of action.”  We gather round the fire and tell stories, decorate the home, spend more time in the comfort of the kitchen. We sing and dance and make music. We participate in timeless rituals. We take out our tools and begin to assemble things — fixing that loose leg on the table, putting the children’s toys together,  setting up the outdoor lights. 

Consider the skill it takes to make a wreath, whip up some homemade grog, orchestrate a dinner for 12, prepare for extra houseguests, keep the peace among different family members, organize the entertainment, and get to know new members of the tribe.

This is may be the greatest gift of the holiday season—the opportunity to draw on all our resources.  To huddle together, making our own warmth and light.  


Valerie Andrews is the founder and Chief Storyteller of Reinventing Home. 

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