For those of us in the northern hemisphere, we’re right in the middle of the coldest part of the year. And while many of us in the northern climes enjoy getting outdoors in the winter, some of us are, shall we say, indoor people. We don’t like the cold, and kind of wish we could just hibernate until April (or June, for some of us!).
And even though I’m one of those indoor types, in November I signed up for a weekly volunteer commitment that involves standing outside for two hours at a time EVEN IN BELOW ZERO WEATHER. In fact, last week, the “feels like” temperature at the beginning of my shift was -25F (the air temp was a mere -9F, if you’re curious).
These frigid hours have warmed my soul as I put my furry boots on the ground to work for a cause that’s important to me, AND they’ve kept my barely-exposed cranium cool and alert and thinking about all kinds of COLD WINTERS, literal and metaphorical.
Winters are inevitable, whether they arrive seasonally due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis, or unexpectedly due to a tilt in our life circumstances. As much as we love warmth and joy, sometimes we’re bitterly cold and frozen in place, wind-whipped and raw.
And as I’ve had a lot of invigorating outdoor time to ponder such things, I present to you….
1. Gather Your Gear
When I head out for my shift, I make sure I have a layer of Under Armour, followed by fuzzy socks, leg warmers, a warm sweater, my heavy down parka, scarf, hat, thick mittens, and earmuffs. I’ve got my winter gear ready to go — there’s no need to even think about what I’m going to wear those days. I feel snuggly and safe and protected.
What things in your life make you feel safe and protected? What activities allow you to feel soothed and cared for? We all know the importance of self-care, but when an unexpected polar vortex rolls in, we may not be able to run out to the store for supplies. So have your self-care menu and all the necessities handy — your therapist’s phone number, your stack of coloring books, your yummiest comfort food, your tribe of beloved friends, your inspirational book, and a whole bunch of tissues.
2. Find Sources of Warmth
In addition to all the gear above, I also put foot-warmers in my boots and hand warmers in my mittens. They have to be the greatest inventions ever! When a cold breeze whips up, I gently wrap my fingers around the warm little pod in my hands.
Not only does heat make our hands feel better, but it makes our minds feel soothed, too! Research shows that you feel better just holding a warm beverage, and that you tend to think more kindly about the people you are with while holding said beverage (it makes sense why we often meet over coffee when we want to impress someone!)
There’s a reason why “comfort foods” are warm things like soup and pasta… heat warms the body and the soul! So when life turns cold, nurture yourself with a heating pad, an electric blanket, and a hot cup of tea. (Did reading that sentence make you feel nice and warm, even a little? Research says even thinking about warm things makes us feel better!)
3. Soften, Don’t Tighten
How do you react when you step outside into the brisk winter air? Do you tighten? Hunch your shoulders? Contract your body inward?
It’s what most of us do… and it’s completely counterintuitive. Constricting our body constricts blood flow, which actually makes us colder. As I stand outside in the cold, I can sometimes feel my body doing this. So I take a deep breath, relax my body, and simply ease into the outdoor air. It doesn’t transform the atmosphere — I soften into it. I don’t fight it. I release tension, and I feel better.
We do this when something bad happens, too — we brace, we tighten, we hold our breath. Our physical contraction fuels our emotional contraction. What if we just softened into the crisis? It’s already here, and just like winter, it might settle in for a while. Breathe, relax your body, and ease into the moment, instead of fighting it. It doesn’t mean you LIKE it, anymore than I LIKE dangerous windchills. But it’s here, and we get to choose how we’re going to BE with it.
4. Search for Meaning
When I stand outside for two hours in subzero temperatures, it helps to know that what I am doing matters, and has meaning, both for me and for others.
When the cold rushes in, it may be hard to see the meaning right away, especially if it’s accompanied by a blinding blizzard. But you can certainly think of a time when you suffered through “the dark night of the soul” and emerged transformed; it was hard as hell and nowhere near as warm, and though you’d never want to relive it, you know you learned something important about yourself.
Victor Frankl says, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” And if the snowdrifts are blocking your view right now, can you trust that once the snow melts, the meaning may be right there in your front yard?
5. Look for the Sun
Fun Fact: the sun shines on 70% of Minnesota winter days. As dreary as we think the winter is, it’s actually quite sunny and beautiful outside. As cold as I am outdoors, just seeing the sunshine makes me feel warmer.
And even during our lowest lows, something in the world is still good. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, as long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong with you. Sam Harris encourages us to identify “good enough reasons to be satisfied now.” Not “happy,” but satisfied. If the only thing that’s good or satisfying in this frozen moment is that you are breathing, and you KNOW you are breathing, then that’s a start.
Gather your gear, soften your body, search for meaning, and look for the sun. Spring is just around the corner.