For thousands of years, the Winter Solstice has been a day for revelry and ritual. The longest night and shortest day of the year—it offers self-care opportunities unique to the season. But darker days trigger less jovial feelings for some and even depression for others. For many people, winter is challenging with the stress of holidays, less sunlight, and colder temperatures.
A YouGov survey found that an overwhelming majority of Americans felt that January was their least favorite season. Colder months can weigh heavily on the mind, but we can learn to embrace shorter, chillier days rather than recoiling into unhealthy habits.
We can’t stop winter from coming, so why not incorporate it into our self-care and well-being? There are so many ways to enjoy the Winter Solstice—including everything from spiritual awakening to something as simple as a good night’s sleep. The season is perfect for introspection.
So, what does it mean to “embrace” the solstice? Embracing the first day of winter is about seeing the opportunities rather than the limitations, and that’s how we can infuse self-care into this observance. Winter brings value to our lives when used as a teacher rather than an adversary.
You Don’t Have to Be Pagan
There’s a misconception that you must be pagan to celebrate solstices. You don’t have to be a devout Christian to enjoy hot cocoa with family on Christmas, and you don’t have to be pagan to celebrate the changing seasons.
Though experts debate this, some say that Christmas was strategically placed near the solstice to make it slightly easier for pagan converts to transition to Christianity. Cultures worldwide have Winter Solstice rituals—from citrus baths in Japan to sunrise gatherings in Ireland.
Dealing With Winter Depression
If you get in a debilitating funk at the same time each year, you could be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), formerly known as “seasonal depression.” It can cause fatigue, weight changes, suicidal thoughts, and worse. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD. The distinguishing characteristic between SAD and other forms of depression is that it comes at the same time for multiple years in a row.
Thankfully, SAD is treatable. Seeing a therapist is an excellent place to begin. But if you can’t get professional help, try to take care of yourself. Incorporating seasonality is a positive approach.
We offer the following self-care practices to help you nurture your well-being on the solstice and through the winter months. As always, we recommend self-care, not as something you have to do. Instead, think of it more as an approach or opportunity to grow. It shouldn’t be a source of stress.
On December 21st, we have a whopping nine hours and 15 minutes of darkness in New York City. What better way to embrace the longest night of the year than to get some shut-eye?
Sleep is one of the most overlooked yet essential aspects of our health (mental and physical). It’s irreplaceable for longevity. Lack of sleep compounds and creates more health problems than you can imagine. The Mayo Clinic and many other experts confirm, your immune system doesn’t work without sleep. Using the solstice to build good sleeping habits can make winter feel a little less intimidating.
There’s a growing interest in sleep amongst health and wellness circles, likely because our society and culture are so bad at catching z’s. The concept of sleep hygiene is worth researching and incorporating into your life this winter. Essentially, it’s all the things you do or don’t do to get enough quality rest at night. Improving your sleep hygiene could be instrumental in creating a better foundation for every facet of your well-being.
Like sleep, exercise maintains and calibrates our health and circadian rhythms. Staying physically active during the winter months is important, if not more so, because we have holiday indulgences coupled with short, cold days.
With less daylight, it can be difficult to find the inspiration you might’ve had in the summer to get out, but try to resist the temptation to hibernate. The body and mind are intertwined—when we recoil from physical activities, it can affect our emotional state and vice versa. Here are some NYC-specific tips for exercising in the winter.
If you don’t have the time or money to exercise much, find opportunities to walk, take the stairs, or do physical activities in your apartment. Use winter as an excuse to get to know your neighborhood more intimately with daily walks. For many of us, intense fitness goals can create more stress than they relieve—just staying active is what’s important.
Between winter and a lingering pandemic, you’re likely getting to know your apartment/house better than you would’ve ever imagined. We naturally spend more time inside from December through March, so keeping your home supportive of your well-being is vital. Research proves that clean, organized spaces make us happier and more productive.
Unfortunately, consumer culture makes it easy to have too much stuff. The Winter Solstice could be an ideal time to declutter as you close out the year. Even if it’s just one junk drawer that you tackle, the sense of accomplishment is worth it. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondō is the perfect book for those looking to make their space a positive one, and this therapy-inspired blog offers cleaning tips for stress relief as well.
Admittedly, as city-dwellers, not all of us are outdoorsy people. Whether phrases like “explore nature” make you cringe, or you are in fact the type to get out into the woods every weekend, everyone can enhance how they use nature to better mental health in the winter. But keep in mind, even if you aren’t crazy about nature, your DNA is. When it comes to incorporating nature into your well-being, at the minimum, aim for these two goals: get sun and keep plants in your life.
A window seat on a bus or working near a sunny window is a way to get a little daily sun. Science proves that our species needs the sun’s rays—it regulates all the good things in life like mood and sleep.
Even if you chase the sun all winter, you might not be getting all you need. New York City is 2,813.09 miles north of the equator, which means we have a lot less daylight and vitamin D right now. The Cleveland Clinic found that 42% of Americans are vitamin D deficient and says that, “The latest research links vitamin D deficiency to mood swings, depression, lack of energy, chronic skin conditions, and other chronic diseases.”
Additionally, we can eat foods to get more vitamin D in the winter, like fatty fish, milk, and fortified cereals. Mushrooms are another peculiar yet powerful source of this happy-enhancing vitamin (we’re not suggesting the psychoactive variety). Fungi already contain vitamin D, and if you let them get a little sun in your kitchen’s windowsill before eating them, it will increase the vitamin D levels substantially. As bizarre as this sounds, the research is resounding. A study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrients, explains it well.
This odd mushroom fact is a case in point for embracing the Winter Solstice through self-care. With more time inside, it’s a fun opportunity to geek out on interests, hobbies, and activities that are healthy for you, like cooking.
As we discussed with exercise, walks are great for your mental health. But the other benefit is that they get you in the fresh air. Countries near the arctic circle report higher happiness levels than most, despite having incredibly long and cold winters—their secret is to accept the cold and not hide from it.
Parks and forests are still good to visit in the winter. Try bringing hot drinks, dressing warm, or maybe adventuring with a friend to make it enjoyable. Doing so allows you to get sun and enjoy a little nature. Incorporating more house and office plants can make a subtle life improvement, too.
More Solstice Tips
For other ideas to embrace solstices and get through the holidays, check out our blog. Ever heard of “hygge?” It’s a philosophy of coziness and comfort that we explore in Surviving the Holiday Season. Some of the concepts we shared in our Finding Equilibrium in Autumn Equinox post are also relevant to the Winter Solstice.
We hope the longest night of the year treats you well, but if you’re struggling to see the light through the dark days of winter, we can help.