As I sit here in my cozy, warm living room in front of my cozy, warm (albeit fake) fireplace, I wonder what the hell I am doing living in this province. The temperature outside right now is -27, which is cold enough by itself, but when you add the bitterly cold wind, it feels like -41. And it’s not even winter yet. Yep, there are still another three weeks of autumn to go before we officially face winter head-on.
Let’s not even talk about the snow and ice. Driving is a nightmare, walking is treacherous, and shovelling is a necessity to get out the door. Argh! Each year I am more scared to get behind the wheel, and I envision plowing into a snowbank, a building, or, heaven forbid another vehicle. Stopping on a dime is a thing of the past. Now you say a few prayers to whatever higher power you hold dear as you fishtail down the street en route to that four-way stop or major intersection, hoping to stop in time.
If this sounds all doom and gloom, it’s because, well, it is. I used to love winters. The sight of big, fluffy flakes falling from the sky, as well as the contrast between the beautiful blue sky and brilliant white snow, was breathtaking. I didn’t even mind the feel of crisp, cold air on my cheeks. All you needed to do was pull your scarf tighter or don a heavier pair of mitts. I loved to see the sparkling diamonds on pristine banks of snow or the frost that gathered on tree branches.
Now all I feel is despair. Another three or four months of this. Summer seems like a lifetime away.
It’s okay. I will get used to it. We must, living here. We must get out in the cold, drive a bit slower (a lot slower in my case), dress in more layers, and go snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, skating, and tobogganing. Mulled wine has become a household staple. This coldness will pass, and life will blossom and bloom once again—for a few months when it gets cold and starts all over again.
Canada has one of the world’s most extreme winter climates. Although the coldest province is Nunavut, I’m pretty sure Saskatchewan, the province in which I live, can give it a run for the title. In fact, a couple of years ago, temperatures here were colder than on Mars. Fortunately, I was in Mexico, but I hear from good sources that it was pretty scary.
Besides making life a bit more difficult, cold weather can really affect our mental and physical health, and not in a positive way.
Humans tend to drift into hibernation mode during extreme temperatures. The problem is that, with the winter days being shorter, the body produces less serotonin and more melatonin. In other words, we produce less of the happiness hormone and more of the sleepiness hormone. So, we sleep more, watch more TV, eat more, and gain more. It is harder to exercise in the colder months, or at least to get the motivation to get out and exercise. It just takes so much longer to go anywhere!
“The cold weather brings a number of risks, especially for older adults,” says Dr. Suzanne Salamon, a geriatrician and instructor at Harvard Medical School.
Besides exposure-related issues, such as frostbite, windburn, and hypothermia, there are other health concerns that arise in the winter. The list includes asthma attacks, joint pain and arthritis, and even digestive issues.
The immune system is put under more pressure in the winter as people spend more time indoors together. This is the time when flu, colds, and other viruses are more prevalent. Let’s not forget about COVID, right? The heart is also under siege in the winter. Cold weather narrows the blood vessels, which can lead to a heart attack—not to mention the number of heart attacks caused by shovelling heavy snow! Of course, the skin really comes under attack during the winter. The cold air literally sucks out the moisture in the skin, and the resulting dryness can be quite painful. Chapped lips, wind-burned faces, and, in severe cases, frostbite, can surely make life miserable. Older adults especially are at risk for hypothermia, in which the body’s internal temperature falls too low. And then there’s the danger of broken bones from falling on icy sidewalks or steps. It doesn’t seem to matter how good the tread is on your boots. Ice is ice.
Winter weather has an influence on mental health conditions such as manic and depressive episodes in people with bipolar disorder. Anxiety and depression can also be heightened. Partially to blame is the lack of sunlight, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but it is also more challenging for many to continue with self-care such as getting together with friends, exercising, and enjoying nature.
Well, I think I have vented enough about the weather, although in Saskatchewan it is one of the most talked about subjects. “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes!”
There are some benefits to living in a colder climate. You get a new wardrobe. You have an excuse to stay inside. There are new television series to delve into. There are also many learning opportunities online now, in part thanks to COVID, but regardless, the sky is the limit for new things you can learn. Winter also seems to decrease irritability, anger, and stress. Say what? Yes. Researchers in Poland discovered that our bodies produce less cortisol, the stress hormone, in the winter. This means levels of stress, irritability, and anger will drop. Crime goes down. (And I thought it was just too cold!) Another benefit is the increased levels of endorphins, the feel-good hormones when you exercise outdoors, and your body works harder to stay warm. Hmmm.
I must remind myself of all the good things the colder months bring. Like Christmas and the three “Fs.” Family, friends, and food. It is fun to strap on a pair of snowshoes and have a look at your favourite trail when it is covered in a blanket of white. Cross-country skiing creates a feeling of euphoria when you glide effortlessly across a snow-covered field. (Well, not so effortlessly anymore, but you get the picture!) How about the smell of burning logs on a mild day? Ah yes, a winter wiener roast really sets my taste buds aflutter. We did just that the other day when it was only -12. The roasting forks were frozen in the bucket, so we had to thaw them on the fire. The snow served as a cooler for our beer, and although we ate inside, it was wonderful. And don’t forget travel. I never understood the lure of warmer climates when I was younger. Now, especially after two years of not being able to go away, I long for the day I step off the plane into the hot and humid air of Mexico.
But until that day comes, I will bravely go forth into the frigid winter air, sporting a new pair of walking boots and a handmade toque with a matching scarf, dreaming of a warmer day.
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