Ready or not, winter is upon us! How’s it going so far? Are you winning over the gray, or is the gray winning over you?
Winter is a gift, and when managed properly, you can thrive in joy through the bleak months of the year. For New Englanders, we are settling in for the hardest season and, in some ways, the most fruitful season, for the snow and ice of winter are what yield the fruitfulness of early harvest.
How can you navigate this season—emotionally and spiritually—to thrive in the gray? I happily submit to you 10 ways to win over winter emotions (plus a bonus!).
It’s taken me eight New England winters of experimentation to understand the weather’s impact on my mind and heart. Perhaps you’re already a pro! It took me two years to assess, with Dana’s wisdom, that the emotional impact was a combination of multiple things: shorter days, longer nights, low gray clouds, rain, snow, cold, etc. So here is my spiritual and emotional survival list for winter. In fact, it’s more than that—it’s a THRIVE LIST!
Make this your winter checklist, and you will grow immensely this season, I promise!
1. Worship Fights Winter Lows
Devote Yourself and Your Family to Weekly Worship
Of course, Covid has impacted this. Whether in the room or online, be with your church family, heart open, Bible open, ready to receive from Jesus. Regather when possible, and don’t let “not gathering” become a normal thing. Nothing will beat this devoted weekly commitment in your life, even beyond winter. Avoid the twice-a-month or occasional worship attendance pattern. Every seven days, minimally, decide you will LOVE, GROW, and SERVE with your church family. You can’t do anything more beneficial in the long-term trajectory of your life and family!
2. Bright Environments Fight Winter Lows
Address the Impact of Your Environments
I’m not talking about climate change. I’m talking about your immediate world, your surroundings. Think light, sound, music, smell, temperature, color, airflow, and even clothing choices. Consider how to make the immediate environment more encouraging.
For me and Dana, this meant painting our home with lighter colors, playing encouraging worship music often, replacing our dim lightbulbs with brighter, softwhite LED’s, adding lights to dark areas of the house, keeping air flowing even when the temperature is right (fans, etc.), lighting candles, using air fresheners, and decluttering spaces. Call me strange, but I find that even wearing certain colors can impact me differently. All of these things and more impact us emotionally, thus spiritually. Changing how we manage our environments can powerfully change our mental and emotional world as well.
3. Physical Movement and Blood Flow Fight Winter Lows
Purposefully Cultivate Physical Health for Mental Health
It’s a downward spiral. First, you drift from Jesus and away from worship, then you withdraw into a reclusive environment (cloudy days, dark rooms, lonely feelings). Then you flip on the TV and binge eat pizza and donuts (and maybe Pop-Tarts) while you binge watch a show filmed in some exotic, tropical, sunny place. Then you come out of your coma three months later in a miserable state physically and spiritually.
Sure, I’m going to eat some holiday sweets. Sure, I’ll enjoy some entertainment this winter. Sure, I love pizza and donuts.
It’s all about moderation and movement.
Moderation means portion yourself. Pace yourself. You’ve got all winter, and only so many cookies are safe. (I highly recommend “Dad’s Favorite Cookies” from Stew Leonard’s.) Balance out the “comfort food” with healthy things or entire days or weeks of precision dieting. Then, get your body moving—blood flow changes everything—even if it’s a brisk walk. For me, it’s 45 minutes a day on an elliptical (and minimal weights) about five days a week. Dana and I also love to walk together, indoors or out.
I put off regular exercise for a long time, so I worked up to it gradually. It took me a long time to figure out a kind of exercise I could actually stick with faithfully and enjoy. I started with 10 minutes and worked up from there, and now I actually look forward to it. The physical movement changes my emotional and mental state. The impact on my mind, physiology, and energy is dramatic. Quality of energy, strength, and mental clarity is well worth the time invested.
The key here is to find out what you can do consistently and actually enjoy. Any diet or exercise program that you will continue doing is better than the one that you cannot sustain. Choose the one that works for you.
On that elliptical I can study, listen to a podcast, make phone calls (while apologizing for being out of breath), or watch TV. The physical and mental change after 45 minutes of movement is astounding! It’s a total reset. It took about 30 days to establish the habit, build physical stamina, and grow to appreciate the impact—but what a difference it makes.
4. Physical Nutrition Fights Winter Lows
Be Mindful of the Impact of Various Nutrients
We will miss the sun the next four months or so, and sun gives us more than skin cancer. It gives us vitamin D, that wonderful vitamin that increases mental happiness and builds our immune system. The truth is, your immune system and emotions will be significantly impacted by 4000iu (or more) vitamin D3 daily.
Emotional lows in winter are common and can be caused by many things: fatigue—sometimes you need a nap; circumstances—other times you’re just having a bad day; spiritual battle—maybe some lows are purely spiritual. But have you ever considered vitamin deficiency? Sometimes you may just need more vitamin D. Many people are severely vitamin D deficient and never know it until a doctor diagnoses the condition.
It takes a month or so to build up in your system, but this has been a good decision over the last six years. In addition, I do a daily multivitamin (you know, the one for athletic, young men) and also vitamin B and fish oil. (I tried the fish oil with tartar sauce on bread, but it isn’t quite like New England fish and chips.)
You may come up with a combination that works better for you, but don’t discount the fact that this season often leaves us nutrient and vitamin deficient. Also, in general, I have found that I’m sick less often or for shorter periods.
On top of this, there is really good science that validates the impact of various foods. I’m a sugar junkie, but I also know that sugar and carbs contribute to the “blah” feelings of winter and actually make them worse. Again, moderation is key, but be aware that your intake is impacting your emotions.
5. Sunshine Fights Winter Lows
Find the Sun and Soak It Up
In those rare moments when the sun is shining, sit close to a window and absorb what you can. Some seasoned winter pros have told me, “Go tan”—which actually works, but I doubt my dermatologist is going to be on board. Others have said to buy a sun lamp for your bathroom—which I have not tried.
This is certain—sunlight impacts our emotions, and we have a lot less of it this season; so what little we have, try to maximize.
When the sun is shining, try to get into the light this winter.
6. Personal Worship Fights Winter Lows
Be Strategic about Soul Health
Feed your soul with God’s word and other devotional, inspirational, encouraging reading this winter. Daily is best, but any frequency is better than none. Great worship music with biblical content or biblical podcasts will also lift you and build you. (We have eight-and-a-half years’ worth of sermon series available at ebcnewington.com and on the EBC and Leading in the Gospel podcasts.)
Every day at noon, I share a ten-minute, biblical devotional on all of our media platforms. We archive these devotions in podcast format, and the videos are accessible any time of the day or night.
Engaging your mind in spiritual growth will divert your attention from descending into despair or isolation. Reading great books filled with spiritual truth will bring tremendous growth in your life. Stop by the church bookstore and pick up something that will fuel your heart for God this winter.
7. Healthy Relationships Fight Winter Lows
Get Around People Who Lift You Up
The temptation during seasonal and emotional lows is to withdraw, which makes things worse. When you withdraw, you get mired into your loneliness, which becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Withdrawal makes you isolated, isolation leaves you feeling alone, which then makes you withdraw further.
Reverse this cycle. Again, Covid has made this a bit more difficult, but a video visit is better than none at all. Be a part of an online group with your church family. Plan your week with some intentional fellowship of some kind. Plan deliberate times of celebration with family or friends. Have a game night for no reason but to break up the early darkness.
Bottom line—somehow, stay connected to those Christian friends or family that inflate your spirit with strength. Then, be that person for someone else.
8. Serving Others Fights Winter Lows
Involve Yourself in Blessing Others through Ministry
Be a part of an adult Group. Join a ministry Team. Make an encouraging phone call to a hurting person or deliver a meal to someone who is sick. Serving Jesus by serving others through your church will take your heart and mind to a very different place.
Someone else needs you. Your church needs you. You can actually make a big difference this winter just by serving (safely) on a Team. Connect with any pastoral staff member about how to be involved in serving at this unique time.
You could make a difference in someone else’s life this winter, and in so doing, take your emotions and mind to a wonderful place of joy and delight. It’s a blessing to bless others.
9. Sharing the Gospel Fights Winter Lows
Be Purposeful about Giving Out the Gospel
One thing transformed a dark, Philippian jail cell into not only a tolerable place, but an enjoyable place—worship and giving the gospel to others. Paul took his dark moment in Acts 16 and turned it into a gospel moment. He shared Jesus.
If you want to absolutely “blow up” your heart with joy and delight this winter, be intentional about giving the gospel to others. In winter months, God has given me the joy of leading a young atheist to Jesus, another one of our team members led a lady to Jesus at the Next Step tables after church, five adults stepped forward to say that they were trusting Jesus at our Christmas Eve service, and three more did so the following Sunday.
Don’t stop inviting others to join us in person or online this month. You know I’ll be preaching the gospel all month long. The truth is, a lot of people are discouraged in winter, and your invite to church (either in person or online) may be the very thing that brings them to Jesus and lifts your spirits at the same time. At the very least, invite them to “come and see” or give them a Done book.
10. Prayerful Dependence Fights Winter Lows
Grow the Habit of “Casting Your Care”
This is a great habit! Take the nagging burden, the unresolved problem, that thing that is just dragging you into an emotional fog—and throw it into Jesus’ hands. Say it out loud—“Lord, these are your problems! I can’t wait to see how you plan to solve them!”
Then smile and move out into your day with hope, faith, and joy. You are the beloved child of a wealthy and powerful King, and He will never leave you in need. God never leaves His sheep “wanting.” His strength is yours for today, and He will give you just the strength you need to get through this day. He will do the same tomorrow and the next day. Rest in Him, and know that He is going to care well for your concerns.
Bonus! Little Gifts That Cheer You Fight Winter Lows
Purposefully Take Breaks from Winter
What are some small gifts of God that He has placed into your life to delight you?
Dana likes “smelly candles” and a warmly decorated home. I love a good fire and great coffee. Dana likes soft, warm shirts and warm throw blankets. (She calls them “cozy.”) I like Christmas lights and ice cream. In fact, my primary motivation for exercise and healthy eating is so I can occasionally go off the rails with cookies and ice cream. In my book, a really good donut is worth every moment on the elliptical. Dana likes romantic Christmas movies. I like not watching romantic Christmas movies.
Be deliberate about what cheers you. Like for me, any day I don’t watch a Hallmark movie, that’s a happier day. Seriously though, there are little breaks I can take during my day that lift me—it may be a song, a snack, a phone call to a friend, or a good laugh. It may be having lunch at a favorite spot or just taking 10 minutes to thank God for a lot of blessings. Don’t underestimate the power of these little gifts.
In big picture, the challenge is to not take for granted our emotional state. Don’t default into an autopilot state where your emotions are running you. Be aware of how you feel and choose to objectively address and cultivate those feelings rather than let them control you. Choose to guide them and shape them with the resources God has made available. Choose to give your family and friends the “best you” through this winter.
Personally, I have found these 11 tips to be profoundly powerful and helpful through the hard months of the year. In many ways I look forward to the winter because I can use the downtime to rest, read, and plant seeds into my soul that will yield a long, lifetime harvest.
Don’t waste your winter—grow through it and let God shape you by His grace!