“It is winter in Narnia,” said Mr. Tumnus, “and has been for ever so long . . . always winter, but never Christmas.” Maybe it is never winter where you live, but here in Minnesota, we can relate to the sorrow and longing of Narnia. Winter here always overstays its welcome.
And the darkness of winter distresses some of us more deeply than others. Studies continue to show that less sunlight, shorter days, and colder temperatures often deplete a person’s energy and challenge mental health. An affected person “can feel sad, irritable, and may cry frequently; and they are tired and lethargic, have difficulty concentrating, sleep more than normal, lack energy, decrease their activity levels, withdraw from social situations, crave carbohydrates and sugars, and tend to gain weight due to overeating.” For those of us in extreme winter climates, it’s hard not to see at least one, if not more, of these symptoms visit us at some point during winter.
Aspects of winter may affect any of us, cooling our walk with Christ, complicating our relationships, and subtly undermining the life of the church. So, how do we prepare for the clouds that come, and what can we do before the temperature of our souls begins to dip?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) was first documented in the 1980s by a psychologist who moved from South Africa to New York. He began to notice his lack of energy each winter, as the days grew shorter and the cold kept him indoors. Early treatments suggested bright-light therapy. As to the cause, some now postulate that the change in seasons, and in particular less sunlight, leads to too little serotonin (which helps to keep our moods in balance) and too much melatonin (which inclines us to tiredness and sleep). We should not minimize severity of SAD as a variant of major depression that recurs during the winter months, with the same morbidity and symptoms, including increased risk of suicide.
What we often have in mind when we say “seasonal affective” in common conversation, however, is the more common and milder “subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder” (SSAD) — the “winter blues” — in which the affected person does not meet as many criteria as for SAD proper, yet is affected nonetheless. For those with SSAD, the statistics more than double. Nationwide, including all the southern, sunny states, nearly fifteen percent are said to qualify for SSAD, while about six percent qualify for SAD.
“The darkest and coldest months of the year are a kind of spiritual wakeup call.”
Diagnoses rise with distance from the equator. In Florida, for instance, a little over one percent report qualifying symptoms for SAD, compared to nearly ten percent in Alaska. By some measures as many as fifteen percent in Canada and twenty percent in the United Kingdom qualify for the milder, subsyndromal form. The disorder is roughly four times more prevalent in women.
The Soul of Seasonal Affective
The observation, study, and treatment of SAD and SSAD is still relatively new. Today the early therapy of bright light has been flanked by additional common-sense treatments: “getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, and having a strong social support system.”
Those in northern latitudes are encouraged to get outdoors more frequently, especially on sunny days, supplement with Vitamin D (to help regulate serotonin levels), and monitor carb consumption (to prevent weight gain). Many with clinically diagnosed SAD are treated with medication. (For Christian considerations about the use of antidepressants, see recent studies by medical doctors Kathryn Butler and Mike Emlet.)
As Christians, we believe “the Lord [is] for the body” (1 Corinthians 6:13). He designed and sustains our physical bodies, with all the intricacies and complexities of how our physical and psychological components relate. God means for us to steward our bodies for his glory through what we eat and drink (1 Corinthians 10:31), how we exercise (1 Corinthians 9:27), and how we learn from the common kindness that is medical science and research.
For Christians, though, however mild or severe the symptoms, and whatever course of treatment a doctor recommends, we also have a spiritual component to address. And in an important sense, this is the most vital component. “Bodily training is of some value,” writes the apostle, and “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). I am not a medical doctor or a licensed psychologist, and I do not pretend to speak with expertise into the physical and psychological dynamics. However, as a pastor, I teach the Bible and aim to point people to relevant words God has spoken for any and every condition we face. (I did have a medical doctor and licensed psychologist review this article, and provide feedback, prior to publication.)
Renew Everyday Vigilance
In one sense, whether a clinical case of SAD or even a sub-subsyndromal bout with “winter blues,” the challenges posed to our bodies by the darkest and coldest months of the year amount to a kind of spiritual wakeup call and test. It’s not that winter requires different habits for the Christian, but the stakes, we might say, are raised. The approaching of winter can serve as a fresh call to arms, to renew our everyday vigilance about the sort of spiritual habits and patterns we want to have in place all year.
“What winter joy might we have left untasted simply because we did not humble ourselves to ask?”
For some of us, the fresh light and greenness of spring, the brightness and warmth of summer, and the coziness and colors of fall may help us “get by” with less spiritual vigilance. It may help those affected by winter to flip our mindset: to see the interlude of sunshine as an opportunity to increase the vigilance of our soul-care in anticipation of the coming winter. It provides us with an opportunity to equip ourselves, and to develop, with God’s help, the kind of spiritual rhythms that we then aim to sustain through the toughest of times.
In addition to faithfully stewarding our bodies with exercise, Vitamin D, light therapy, and whatever else wise counselors may advise, Christians want to consider a vital soul-care component at the heart of our plan: knowing and enjoying Jesus through the means he has appointed, which we can summarize as threefold.
Hear His Voice (Word)
The first and most fundamental means of God’s grace is his word. He is God. He initiates. He speaks first. And he has spoken to us — in nature (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:19–20), climactically in the person of his Son (Hebrews 1:1–2; John 1:1), and in the Scriptures through his apostles and prophets who speak for the risen Christ (Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 2 Peter 3:2).
For some of us, winter may be the season when we discover at new depth how much “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). It is these very words that the Word himself quotes to combat his wilderness temptations (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4). As Christians, we look to Jesus as our year-round “bread of life” (John 6:33, 35, 48, 51), and winter can prompt us to self-examine, Am I feeding as regularly and fully on the word of God as I need to?
Have His Ear (Prayer)
Because of Jesus, our Great High Priest, seated at the Father’s right hand, we can enjoy the priceless gift of having the very ear of God himself in prayer. In the name of Jesus, we not only come spiritually into the immediate divine presence, but we do so confidently, to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14–16).
Anticipating and seeking to combat “winter blues” is an opportunity to ask ourselves, Am I forfeiting significant joy of soul by the casualness and infrequency of my prayers? In particular, with our specific emotional challenges in the dark days of winter, do we ask for God’s help? Do we ask for greater joy in him? Do we name the struggle in our prayers, asking specifically that God would give us energy and flood our souls with fresh contentment in him, despite our cold, dark circumstances — contentment that overflows into a life of self-sacrificial effort and industry?
“Covenantal fellowship may be the most overlooked winter habit, and the most challenging one to keep.”
And do we pray together for it? In our churches, we may do well to keep the lights up and to broach the topic of “winter blues” in our gatherings, whether in the welcome or sermon or midweek newsletter. Our common trials in winter can be not only a matter of awareness but of corporate prayer. In Christ, God hears our prayers and loves to “give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11). What winter joy might we have left untasted simply because we did not humble ourselves to ask it from our Father in heaven?
Belong to His Body (Fellowship)
Finally, genuine covenantal fellowship may be the most overlooked winter habit, and the most challenging one to keep. How often do we cite frigid temps and winter weather as excuses to interrupt our meetings together at the very times we need them most? In Minnesota, at least, we rarely let subzero cold, or even a fresh foot of snow, keep us from getting groceries and commuting to work and school, and yet when the temperature plummets, or the snow flies, how many of us are quick to bow out of our Sunday and midweek gatherings?
Did you notice above that one of the common-sense treatments for winter blues is “having a strong social support system”? Of all people, we Christians are in the best of positions. We should make the most of what God has given us by “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25), and all the more in winter. And beyond caring for our own souls, we can make a special point of coming alongside others whom we know struggle during the dark days of winter. To reach out, to call, to visit, to chase away the loneliness that so easily encroaches. To love our neighbors for whom the winters are especially long.
Personal Bible intake and prayer are vital, and God does not mean for us to have them alone, winter or not. He saves us as a people, and to a people called his church, and he means for us, and for others, to be vital means of his grace to each other in the rough and tumble of life in this world — especially in the rough and tumble of the year’s darkest and coldest days.
In northern climates, we need to fight not to bail with any weather excuse, to not let winter interrupt our fellowship. In those times, when we feel down and just want to hibernate into our igloos, let’s remember that it’s precisely at these moments that we need the people of God most.