Why the practice of winter rest is so important

Lauren Crosby Medlicott 31 January 2022

In a culture that values productivity at all times, it's worth listening to nature's call to slow down during the winter months to recoup and re-centre for warmer times

As winter’s middle months soldier on, when holidays have come and gone and our resolutions for change have lost their resolve, many of us find ourselves tired, fatigued, and desperate for a break. The dark evenings and mornings beg for us to quiet our schedules and slow down our routines.

The outside air bites when you breathe it in and sweeps you back into the warmth to await spring’s welcome with crackling fires, warm drinks, cosy blankets, and sleep—a form of wintertime hibernation.

But in a culture that prizes productivity, we rarely welcome the invitation to rest during the winter months, pushing through the exhaustion, instead of giving into it.

Nature’s winter dormancy

Hibernation is a way creatures survive cold, dark winters. Instead of foraging for food and escaping to a warmer climate, they hunker down and slow their metabolisms to prepare for the warmer months ahead. Breathing relaxes, fat is stored, and signs of life are often unrecognisable.

Trees begin to prepare for their winter dormancy in the autumn, producing fruit and seeds for animals to gather and spread, just in case the tree doesn’t survive the winter. Leaves drop and buds begin to sprout. The tree may be barren and appear asleep, but really, it is protecting itself from the elements and awaiting all the work it will do in the spring.

Humans do not need to hibernate in the same way as many animals and plants do in order to survive. We have learned to use fire, clothing, shelter, hunting, and agriculture to continue living through the winter months. And yet, we have much to learn from nature’s way of using the winter months as preparation for the hustle of spring and summer.

"We have much to learn from nature’s way of using the winter months as preparation for the hustle of spring and summer"

“What is interesting when we look at our neural activity during winter, we continue to have the same levels of alertness to our environments, but useless cognitive resources, making us more efficient with the energy we use, and becoming more economical in the process,” explains Lee Chambers, psychologist and wellbeing consultants.

“Add to this that a number of studies have shown we have enhanced mental function during the winter, providing more opportunity to rest and benefit from a period of slower recuperation while continuing to operate at a high level.

While as humans today, our connection to nature is quite fleeting, we were deeply intertwined with our environments and the seasons throughout our evolution, and winter would have signified a time to slow down, reflect, and recuperate for growth in spring.”

Instead of relentless activity, nature teaches us to accept the cycles of life as seasons—times of toil, preparation, and rest. Winter can beif we allow it to bea time of hibernation, when we accept the rest offered to us.

Winter hibernation in Sweden

For humans, this winter rest shouldn’t just look like days spent avoiding the outside chill and spending long evenings in front the television. It’s a season full of darkness and freezing temperatures, but in Sweden, people have learned the art of enjoying and utilising the winter months to get rejuvenated for what the rest of the year holds.

“In Sweden’s far north, there is darkness around the clock in January,” says Niels Eek, a psychologist based in Gothenburg, Sweden. “While winters here can be long, cold, and dark, we still very much try not to shy away from the outdoors completely.”

Eek doesn’t disappear into darkness all winter, but instead makes every effort to get outside and enjoy the sun, the snow, and the blue sky.

“Getting outdoors and into nature as much as possible during the bright hours of the day will boost mental wellbeing and give you a more positive outlook,” Eek says.

“And then after a long, bracing walk in the cold, homes are for Hygge. Certain acts like curling up on the sofa with a hot cocoa, lighting your favourite candle, putting on warm pyjamas, heating a hot water bottle or simply getting under a blanket by the fire—all would be considered Hygge.”

"Getting outdoors and into nature as much as possible during the bright hours of the day will boost mental wellbeing and give you a more positive outlook"

Winter is made up of outside chill and inside warmth. By appreciating both facets of the season, we reap the full restorative effects winter brings—both emotional and physical reprieve from life’s challenges.

“Emotional rest allows us space to become more self-aware, more emotional balance and have more resilience and flexibility with how we navigate the world around us,” says Chambers. “It can also provide a buffer against life stressors, increase our motivation and improve our mental wellbeing.

Physical rest impacts us in a similar way, boosting our ability to concentrate, our energy levels and how we feel. It also gives us the space to recover physically, moderate immunity and release tension.”

“Wintering” isn’t just for winter

Wintering by Katherine May

In her book Wintering, Katherine May uses the term “wintering” to describe the times in life when we feel “out in the cold”. For May, wintering is more than just something that happens from December until March.

In an interview, she described the process as “those moments when we fall through the cracks and are unable to get a foothold back in everyday life.” May suggests we can “winter” at any time of the year.

“It’s time to recognise that everybody winters, and usually several times across a lifetime,” she said in the same interview. “Wintering isn’t a sign that we’ve somehow failed to hold it all together, but instead a normal part of the life cycle, and a gateway to the next phase.”

When we feel burnt out, left behind, lonely, or angry, we can allow ourselves to accept the feelings, and then find ways to take care ourselves—reaching out to friends and family, sleep, eat comfort foods, take long walks, and sit in hot baths.

Our seasons of inward “winters” will eventually pass and turn to springs, and if we have been kind to ourselves, we will feel fully rested, able to bloom for the warmer days ahead.

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