A few days into a new nationwide lockdown for England, with ever shorter days and winter around the corner, many of us will start to struggle with the increased restrictions and our resilience will be acutely tested. However, there are some grounds for hope and perhaps even some changes we can make to our individual mindset in order to embrace this period and improve our own emotional resilience.
November can be a pretty miserable month, with the clocks having gone back, the cold and damp and now with the added COVID-19 induced lockdown keeping us indoors even more. The lack of exposure to daylight can really throw our circadian rhythm out, potentially impacting us in various ways; dysregulated sleep, an increased craving for sugar, a lack of motivation or even the “Winter Blues”, SAD (Seasonal affective disorder),
SAD particularly affects people living in countries with similar latitudes to the UK and standard-issue treatments include antidepressant medication along with psychotherapy. However, a recent study (under peer review) by Leibowitz has found that the citizens of Tromsø in Norway buck this pattern by adopting a “winter mindset”. Can mindset help us through what might well be a particularly difficult and stressful winter period?
The Norwegian’s shine a light
To test whether a difference in outlook could explain the resilience of Norway’s Tromsø’s residents was designed by Leibowitz in which she created the “wintertime mindset scale”, which asked participants to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as:
- There are many things to enjoy about the winter
- I love the cosiness of the winter months
- Winter brings many wonderful seasonal changes
- Winter is boring
- Winter is a limiting time of year
- There are many things to dislike about winter
By analysing these results, she found that participants’ answers actually predicted their wellbeing over the coming months; the more they saw the winter as an exciting opportunity, the better they fared, with high levels of life satisfaction and overall mental health.
They feel like they’re just someone who hates the winter and there’s nothing they can do about it… But once you put it in people’s heads that mindsets exist, and that you have control over your mindset – I think that that’s tremendously powerful.
So perhaps adopting a positive winter mindset for us in the UK can make a difference. We may not be able to look forward to exciting winter activities on our doorstep, such as skiing, but there are some simple controllable interventions during winter that can help. Early morning walks, embracing as much sunlight as you can, making an effort to bring some Mediterranean sunshine to your diet with fish and fresh vegetables, and as we are being increasingly recommended, Vitamin D. Once we have moved out of lockdown perhaps some outdoor socialising and wrapping up warm, even around a fire if you are lucky enough to have the space.
Resilience and Emotional Flexibility
Another angle on the same issue is the subject of “emotional flexibility”. There are people that do, or at least seem to, cope relatively well with the nights closing in, illness, financial concerns and even bereavement. But how do they do it? Is there something that others who cope less well, can learn from them?
The ability to endure and even gain some strength out of adversity could be a real asset in current circumstances. Psychologists refer to this as “resilience” or “emotional flexibility”. Dr Koydemir in her blog explains the concept. The main idea is that resilience evolves from the ability to adapt but also combined with a motivation to pursue one’s purpose and values in life.
It’s okay if you don’t feel positive, there is no shame in that. Acceptance and curious noticing are healthier than trying to make ourselves feel in a particular way. This is the essence of emotional flexibility.
Easier said than done. However, this is a skill that can be learnt. With the uncertainty of the months and likely periodic episodes of virus epidemics still ahead of us, this is perhaps something we can look to change in ourselves, and hopefully gain some more control in our lives.
The starting point is to notice and name your feelings, rather than avoid them as they usually come back to bite us at a later time and with greater power. By naming them this creates a moment of pause which enables you to observe. By slowing down and noticing the emotion you move into a space of choice as to how you respond to that difficult feeling. Accepting whatever you are feeling and letting it move through means you are on your way to starting some level of emotional resilience.
Another key exercise to try is understanding your internal value system. Dr Koydemir offers 5 key questions to help with this:
- What truly is important to me?
- What sort of a person do I want to be?
- What qualities do I want to develop?
- Is what you’re doing right now moving you toward your values or not?
- Can you build habits based on your values?
This is certainly a searching inquiry, but one that refocuses us on what is important in our lives and effectively helps us to discover a healthier state of being by encouraging us to spend more time on what we really value in life. One suggestion is to try this activity with a friend who might also benefit. Journaling can also help, it allows us to create an emotional distance between our experiences and ourselves.
Any uplift in our current plight is welcome, whether it be physical exercise, a mindset shift or some form of psychological reset. Whatever your circumstances I am sure being slightly kinder to yourself and noticing that you are probably coping better than you think in these unusual times is a good place to start.