Depression? Seasonal Affective Disorder? The cold and darkness of Sweden at the end of the year is one of the hardest issues for expats. For those of us from relatively warm countries (take note Aussies and South Africans) and others who have never lived this far north, the Swedish climate can be a real shock.
In Stockholm in December it is dark by early in the afternoon. I’ve talked to many expats who really struggle at this time of year. Some have even internalised the problem and have started to think they are depressed or have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Actually, it is really normal and natural to have trouble with the Swedish winter even if you have been here a long time. I’ve gathered the advice of a range of expats and long term visitors to Sweden who I have met in my counselling work as a therapist. Here are their practical suggestions.
1. Get Active
It’s natural to not be as active at this time of year but it’s also good to still move your body. Too cold outside? Try training indoors. Friskis och Svettis offer lower cost fitness memberships that include classes for around 3000 crowns a year (even less if you are a student). That’s not even the cost of 1 glass of wine each week! And you don’t have to be particularly athletic to get something therapeutic out of a gym. Try a 30 minute brisk treadmill walk while listening to your favourite music on an iphone or mp3 player. Taking in the scenery of everyone else working out while you go at your own pace can make you feel alive again. Get a Jawbone and set a goal of 10,000 steps a day on your Jawbone. There are plenty of sports you can do in winter as well, like indoor volleyball and swimming. This is the time of year that hot saunas are really appreciated.
2. Rug Up
Feeling colder can make a difference to your mood so it is worth making the effort to be as warm and cosy as you can when you are walking around outside. We lose most of our body heat through our extremities so pull on a wooly hat that covers your ears (called a mössa in Swedish), gloves, warm footwear and a scarf. Have you discovered the advantages of long underwear yet? A decent winter coat is also helpful of course.
3. Go easy on the grog (and the glögg)
The end of the year is a time for celebration but keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant. Bottled spirits tend to lift our own spirits for a short time but the after effects can pull us down the next day or for several days after a few too many. Drinking more than usual will lead to swings in mood and, in the absence of other helpful strategies, some people develop a dependency on alcohol that can create real problems for them, their partners and families (and I am not referring to Systembolaget being closed on a Sunday). Other ways of picking yourself up include exercising regularly, spending time with friends, attending expat group events and…
4. Getting yourself into the light
Fortunately Stockholm is not completely dark in winter (some places in Sweden are). But the daylight doesn’t last for long. Make sure you make the most of the light and walk around in it during the day if you can. There is some evidence that even a few minutes a day direct daylight on exposed skin (i.e. your face) can make a difference to your physiology and mood. It costs nothing but your time (most of which involves putting on and taking off your warm clothes). Some people use wake up lights and special desk lamps that reproduce the tone of daylight to enlighten their winter days. For example, the Philips Wake-Up Light (available here from Amazon) has a number of settings to replicate sunrise and and even a selection of natural sounds.
5. Make plans and look forward to them
Fellow expats agree there is nothing like a break for a week or two somewhere warm and sunny to change your perspective. Swedes know the advantages of travelling during the darker months and flock to the Canaries (no pun intended!), Egypt and even farther destinations like India, Thailand and Vietnam during December and January. Book your tickets early to get the cheap deals. If you don’t mind the snow, there are some great ski-fields within Sweden. Or you can jump on a party boat to Helsinki, Tallin or Riga. If you can’t afford the time or cost of getting away, make plans to do some exotic activities at home or treat yourself to some special meals. Apparently the restaurant Koh Phangan on Skånegatan makes you feel you are really in Thailand.
6. It’s okay to hibernate a little
Winter is a time of closing down in contrast to the expansiveness of summer. In many ways we have lost touch with the natural rhythms that we see in the animal world. So what if you want to sleep 10 hours instead of 8? That’s how it goes with the cold and darkness. You aren’t depressed and you don’t need medication just because you don’t feel like going out and want to stay in bed more than usual. Lower your Expectations and stop giving yourself a hard time. You can make up for it in the Spring. That brings me to…
7. Embracing the experience
If you can’t beat it, make the most of it. Not all the Swedes take off to sun and sand in wintertime yet they still manage to stay sane and get on with their lives. It might take some time to get the knack of it but those who emigrated to Sweden a number of years ago tell me that there is something to be said for embracing the climate at this time of year. They have taken up photography or cross-country skiing (even with the skis that use little wheels when there is no snow), planned Melodifestival parties, visited the Christmas markets, lit up their apartments with small candles, played and recorded music, painted, drawn, read and written books. The Swedes are a nation of creatives. Even if you just document what you are seeing or hearing around you and how you are feeling in a journal or blog you will be in the company of many who have gone before you in the great musical, literary and artistic traditions of Scandinavia.
8. Remember: It will pass!
From 22 December the nights are shorter and the days start to get longer. When the snow arrives, it can make a difference as well, reflecting daylight or streetlights and generally making everything a bit brighter. Many people do find January is the worst month for them simply because they have endured the darkness and low temperatures for so long. So even getting a sense of the length of winter can help and this often happens for expats once they have been in Sweden for a couple of cold seasons.
If being in Sweden has lost its purpose for you at this dark time of the year, maybe it is time for a meaning-recovering conversation over a hot cup of tea or coffee. Narrative therapy and other collaborative counselling practices can provide you with the opportunity to reconnect with your motivation and find a new lease of life to last through winter. If you want some practical help, together we can construct a plan or strategy to get you through to lighter times. Contact me through the website or call and leave a message on 08-559 22 636 if you would like to make an appointment.
Thanks to Elin, Steve, Evelyn, Barbara, Marie, Matthew, Janet, Paul and Rob for their contributions as well as to all my clients who have found or are finding their own ways of dealing with the darkness and cold.