A Pandemic Winter Doesn’t Have to Defeat Us: Lessons From Norway

Tromsø during winter. Photo: Dennys Hess/Unsplash

We’re starting to experience yet another wave of coronavirus infections, and researchers predict the crest of this wave will occur around the time that autumn turns to winter. The chance of another lockdown across the U.S., or some degree of tightened restrictions, is high.

We experienced our first widespread lockdown last spring, and though it was an unprecedented, difficult challenge, the weather was largely on our side. Exposure to sunlight plays a vital role in people’s mental well-being. It is directly linked to an increase in the brain’s release of serotonin. So the presence of sunlight goes a long way in shoring up our ability to endure a stressful time. This makes the prospect of a dark winter lockdown all the more daunting.

The citizens of Tromsø tend not to show signs of wintry woes; at least not to a degree that one might expect from a city shrouded in darkness.

Even in pre-pandemic times, short winter days lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in some people — a condition that brings about a lethargic and vacuous feeling. You know that sense of wistfulness that comes with the fall, and lingers on as the weather cools? If it begins to drain your energy and leaves you feeling inexplicably sad — that’s seasonal affective disorder.

Winters in Tromsø

The Norwegian island of Tromsø lies at a latitude of 69.64°N, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. From mid-November to mid-January, the city rarely sees the sun. In fact, during the darkest periods, Tromsø receives only two to three hours a day of indirect sunlight.

However, the citizens of Tromsø tend not to show signs of wintry woes; at least not to a degree that one might expect from a city shrouded in darkness. Studies in the BMC Psychiatry journal (2012) show that there were no considerable differences in the mental health of the inhabitants in winter as compared to other seasons (apart from an increase in sleeping problems). So, what might be the reason behind winter well-being in Tromsø?

Mind over matter

Kari Leibowitz, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Stanford, conducted research on health psychology in Tromsø during 2014 and 2015. She concluded that it was the citizens’ mental fortitude that helped them tackle prolonged dark nights.

While many in the Western hemisphere brace for the harshness of winter, Tromsø’s residents await its arrival with excitement. They look forward to ski season and the shelter of home. Koselig — the Norwegian term for coziness — is a notion widely embraced across the island. Norwegians find a wonderful warmth in snuggling up under the covers when the world outside is frozen.

Stress, by itself, is a neutral condition more or less. It’s how we react to it that results in positive or negative experiences and outcomes.

Leibowitz’s findings are not surprising given the immense amount of research indicating that the way people approach potentially distressing circumstances directly influences their response to them. Some may see hard situations in a positive light — as a challenge of sorts that offers an opportunity to learn. Others may have a more pessimistic outlook and focus on the foreboding, unsettling aspects. Stress, by itself, is a neutral condition more or less. It’s how people react to it that results in positive or negative experiences and outcomes.

A 2010 study outlines how this difference in stress response plays out. Those who follow the first approach — viewing the situation as an opportunity for growth — are on the path of task-oriented coping. This approach is referred to as control appraisal. It is essentially a way of perceiving circumstances as challenges and not as situations that one cannot control.

Those who follow the second approach — having a sense of anxiety about the situation — take the path of both emotion/avoidance-oriented coping and task-oriented coping. However, the task-oriented coping factor is much lower as compared to the emotion/avoidance coping for these folks. Control appraisals and task-oriented coping contribute positively to a willingness to take on the challenge. On the other hand, emotion/avoidance-oriented coping tends to increase distress and unease.

The Wintertime Mindset Scale

The aforementioned findings were reinforced by Leibowitz’s experiments in Norway. Along with her advisor at the University of Tromsø, she developed a concept for preliminary testing of her hypothesis. Known as the Wintertime Mindset Scale, it asked participants about their opinions on several positive and negative statements. Some examples: “I love the coziness of the winter months” and “Winter is a limiting time of the year.”

The results were clear. Leibowitz found that having a positive wintertime mindset was associated with greater life satisfaction. Participants who agreed more with the positive statements reflected signs of better mental well-being during the dark winter.

It is crucial to remember that the ability to view a situation as a threat or opportunity depends upon our own state of mind and several personal variables. A feeling of unease isn’t unnatural at all when a potentially distressing situation is about to arise. There are different branches of psychotherapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) available to help people handle difficult conditions in a more beneficial way.

Applying the lessons to a winter lockdown

While we can’t know for sure if another rigid lockdown awaits, we can prepare ourselves. The good news is that we now possess experiences of coping with such an event, and we know what serves us and what doesn’t. If another lockdown comes, we might plan to listen more frequently to slow acoustic music, for instance, or commit to learning the basics of painting.

Changing your mindset has nothing to do with disregarding what is negative about the situation. Changing your mindset is about recognizing your ability to control your response to a stressor. You can’t ignore or suppress your fears, but you can approach the potential lockdown with a more confident, willing stance.

The impact of doing so was recently revealed in a study from Germany. It states that between March and May 2020, “individual differences in life satisfaction were positively related to controllability appraisals, active coping, and positive reframing, and negatively related to threat and centrality appraisals and planning.” In other words, approaching the lockdown as a challenge with a positive attitude helped people reduce dissatisfaction and increase overall happiness.

After all, the winds of winter do carry a certain charm, don’t they? Few things are as beautiful as the first snowfall. In the insightful words of the iconic Irish poet Seamus Heaney: “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.”

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