The first few signs of a Canadian winter are often met with excitement. Snow covered rooftops are posted to social media, homes become cozier and hot drinks are brewed.
But then the panic starts to set in.
Commute times are longer as cars and buses adapt to colder weather. Your body goes through phases of hot and cold as you peel off your layers when you get indoors. Salt, dirt, slush and snow creeps its way into every office and home.
And the worst part is you’re always cold.
Some Canadians complain so often about the winter, they may actually hate it.
And that’s not unusual, says Lawrence Palinkas, a professor at the University of Southern California. His research includes health and environmental psychology.
The winter months affect our minds, bodies
The impact of winter is felt physically and psychologically, which can severely impact mood and your body, said Palinkas, who’s originally from Hamilton, Ont.
“Canadians complain for good reasons … there (is) always going to be a percentage of people who are at risk for severe forms of these psychological changes,” he said, adding that much of the population will experience them in milder versions.
Colder months often mean less sunlight and this can trigger conditions like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a mental illness that may cause constant fatigue, change in appetite, irritability, hopelessness and oversleeping.
SAD impacts two to three per cent of Canadians, but another 15 per cent will experience a milder form, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Natural sleeping and wakefulness patterns can also be thrown off by bright mornings and complete darkness by the afternoon, impacting mental health, says a 2009 study in Sleep Medicine Clinics.
Even if we don’t experience a serious mental illness through the winter, our bodies may go through changes that could be similar to hibernation, said Palinkas. Mammals like polar bears hibernate to cope with cold weather and disrupted light and dark cycles.
“One feature of long-term exposure to cold temperatures and prolonged periods of darkness is a thyroid function that becomes altered,” he explained, adding that people with those conditions show symptoms of depression.
Adapting to extreme climates
But we learn to adapt to changing climates — as illustrated by Palinkas’ research in the South Pole.
In the 1990s, he and others studied whether changing seasons impacted the mood of people who were working in Antarctica. It’s known as one of the coldest, windiest places on earth with the highest average altitude. It’s also enveloped in darkness for six months of the year.
Researchers found that there was a “significant increase” in tension, anxiety and fatigue during initial periods for the subjects when they were on Antarctic expeditions, with depression symptoms being common.
However, this difficult period seemed to be temporary, and potentially part of a process leading to successfully adjusting to the environment.
“People do adapt to extreme cold and dark conditions,” said Palinkas.
The secret to loving winter
While Canadian winters may not see weather anywhere close to Antarctica (the average temperature in the region is -34 C), determining how to cope with freezing temperatures and lack of sunlight isn’t easy.
Embracing winter when it may come with increased stress, poor sleep and less exercise is possible though. It’s all about mindset, says Kari Leibowitz, a PhD student at Stanford University.
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That’s what Leibowitz learned when she spent a year in Tromsø, Norway — a city above the arctic circle that has “Polar Nights”— where the sun doesn’t rise from November to January.
“I started noticing that people there really actually like the winter, and they talked about it with excitement,” explained Leibowitz, who travelled there in 2014 to study why Tromsø has surprisingly low rates of wintertime depression.
The 70,000 residents of this isolated Norwegian city proved to her that dark, cold periods of the year don’t have to be limiting.
“They were really looking forward to the snow because people there love to ski… and how it was such a beautiful time of year,” she said. “They were actually seeing this time of year as full of opportunity.”
Along with colleagues she developed the “Wintertime Mindset Scale” to measure the connection between a person’s health to perceptions of the season.
The scale was used in a survey Leibowitz conducted with 238 Norwegians across the country and she found the farther north they lived, the more they embraced winter. She found the people who were more satisfied with their lives also had a positive attitude towards winter.
While research shows Canadians are more inactive in the winter compared to summer, Tromsø residents liked to be outside regardless of the weather, she said.
They also make their homes cozy, like a sanctuary focused on introspection, she said.
“They don’t view it as, ‘oh, I’m stuck inside,’” she said. “They see it as an opportunity to read books and to be quiet, reflective and to spend time with loved ones.”
Solid infrastructure and city programs that make commutes easier and create activities for families is a factor that helps with their positive attitudes, she explained. But North Americans could work on changing their attitudes towards the cold.
“It’s a cultural tendency… to make small talk by hating on the weather,” she said. “If everyone around you says, ‘oh, I hate the cold, I hate the winter’ then it’s going to be really hard to be someone who notices the positive things.”
“Figure out what you like about the winter, and do that thing,” she recommends, whether it’s streaming TV indoors or going on a hike.
Learning to love the cold
Ishita Singla has always embraced winter. Prior to moving to Canada from India, Singla, 26, was looking forward to the cold.
“I was very excited about the snow because I had seen it in movies,” she said, adding many Bollywood movies feature dance scenes in the snow.
She immigrated to Toronto with her family in 2004. Two years after that, they moved to Calgary.
The city is known for cold, dry winters, but proximity to the Rocky Mountains offers some reprieve.
“It’s beautiful here… it gives us the chance to do activities out in Banff,” said Singla, who is the founder of a South Asian dance studio in the city.
Ishita Singla embraces the wintertime in Calgary. Photo provided by Ishita Singla.
“I have a new dancer on my team, she just came from India and she was ecstatic about the snowflakes, that every flake has this intricate pattern,” she said. “One thing that has made her happy is the winter.”
Although enjoying winter is something for Canadians who have a warm home, and who can afford winter clothing, Singla agrees that your viewpoint will determine whether you are prepared for winter.
“You make the best out of it,” she said. “We take it for granted, but there’s so much beauty to it.”