“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness”John Steinbeck
Winter in Sweden, particularly for those hailing from warmer climes, can be a daunting prospect. The bleak wintry climate often spans five or six months and can have a devastating effect on your mental health, particularly if you’ve just arrived and haven’t yet established a social network. However, with a bit of forethought, wintertime in Sweden can be a cosy, magical place to be. Here are my five tips to emerge from the longest season of the year with your mental health firmly intact:
1. Let in the Light
It’s so simple and easy to forget but getting a daily dose of daylight is essential for our mental health. December in Sweden is dark, with the sun barely surfacing for six hours a day, meaning many of us exist in what feels like a nighttime world. If you can’t afford to escape to Thailand as many Swedes are inclined to do, consider starting work later if you have the luxury of flexible hours, or at least get outside for a walk around the block on your lunch break. If you’re home with a child, getting out for a late morning buggy walk will help make the most of the light. Another alternative is a light therapy lamp or SAD lamp which are designed to mimic natural sunlight and kick start your internal clock, although the research is mixed about how effective these are. Even if you are getting your daily dose of daylight, Vitamin D supplementation in Sweden is a must (year round, but especially in winter time) and for under 5s it is free from your local BVC (barnavårdscentral )
2. Embrace the Mys
Mys is the Swedish sister to the now world famous ‘Hygge’ and can best be translated as ‘cosiness’. Once the autumn is drawing to a close and the days start getting markedly shorter, you will notice candles appearing in every shop/bar/cafe and fairy lights twinkling on almost every balcony or house. This low lighting is essential to ‘mys’ and is an antidote to the dark, cold days that seemingly go on forever. To embrace the mys, think roaring fires, hot baths, blankets, candles, fairy lights in every dark corner of the house and garden, movie nights and tasty treats. One of my favourite Swedish traditions is Fredagsmys – loosely translated as ‘Cosy Friday’ which is a chance to snuggle up on your sofa with your loved ones to watch a movie or TV show and share some food such as tacos or pizza. The worse the weather is outside, the more cosy it feels inside. So make like a Swede and invest in some candles, fairy lights & cosy pyjamas and getting your mys on – every day but especially Friday!
3. Winter Sports
To breeze through the winter like a true Swede, consider taking up a winter sport such as ice skating or skiing. Second hand equipment can be found cheaply and easily online (try Blocket and Facebook marketplace) and there are lots of classes and opportunities to practice once the cold weather has set in. The combination of exercise (ideally outdoors), learning a new skill and potentially making new friends will see you fly through the winter months!
For those in Stockholm you can find a list of public skating rinks here. Quite a lot of them are free of charge (for those of you with your own skates) and there are some places where skates are available to hire (Kungsträdgården / Hellasgården). For a truly authentic Swedish experience I highly recommend visiting a lake during the later winter months, once they have fully frozen over. They become a hive of activity with cross country skiers, ice skaters, ice hockey games, dog walkers and people meeting friends for a hot coffee and hot dog on the ice. More information on where to go can be found here.
For anyone interested in skiing – check out this website for more details, including Hammarbybacken which is a stone’s throw from central Stockholm.
Finally, for the brave hearted – why not remind yourself how good it is to be alive with a dip in the ice hole at Hellasgården? Afterwards you can warm up in the sauna right next to the water and treat yourself to a hot chocolate in the cosy cafe. Situated just 15 minutes from Stockholm city centre, Hellasgården is a year round paradise for nature lovers and in winter they offer cross country skiing, cold water swimming and ice skating in addition to their usual activities.
Meditation – and its more zeitgeisty cousin, mindfulness – is well documented as being one of the most effective things you can do in terms of bolstering your mental health, so establishing a good winter practice is ideal. There are a wealth of proven benefits to a regular meditation practice, including: better sleep; reduced anxiety; improved mood and better focus. The best thing is that the benefits can be felt from just 10 minutes a day. For those in Stockholm, The Kadampa Meditationscenter currently offer meditation classes in English on Sundays at 13:00. More information can be found on their website.
Or for those who prefer to try it in the privacy of their own home there are tons of free resources online. Some of the most popular mobile apps that offer guided meditations include Headspace, Ten Percent Happier and Calm.
5. Get Social
One thing happiness researchers all agree on is that social connection is essential for good mental health. This can make expats particularly vulnerable to low mood, anxiety and even depression, often having left their social network behind in their home countries. It can be extra challenging to make friends in Sweden during the winter, when everyone seems to retreat into their cosy bubbles but it is worth making the effort. You really need to take an opportunistic approach to making friends, don’t be shy about giving your number out to virtual strangers – I personally have made a few really good friends this way, despite my inner introvert screaming at me to stop!
Tried and tested places to make friends include your SFI (Swedish For Immigrants) class, öppna förskolas if you’re a parent, meetup.com and of course check out the Newbie Guide website for a wealth of information on ways to stay social through the winter months.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Maya Angelou as a reminder that even if winter isn’t your thing, it does come to an end eventually!
“I have heard it said that winter, too, will pass, that spring is a sign that summer is due at last. See, all we have to do is hang on”Maya Angelou