Black, White and Holiday Blues: Getting through winter in a foreign land ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Winter in Estonia.
Winter in Estonia. Source: Minupilt.err.ee/Silvia Viru

'Tis the season to be jolly… or is it? Spending winter in a foreign country could be the best thing that could ever happen to someone or it can also be the saddest and the most discouraging event, writes Filipino expat Rowell Joel Lao Malabanan.

Coming from someone who was born from the other side of the world, who has spent the majority of their holidays abroad, I can say that I have experienced both the highs and the lows of spending winter overseas.

Holiday season back home, in the Philippines, is always fun, colorful and an event which we always look forward to. So much so, that Christmas decorations such as lanterns, lightshows and Christmas trees get assembled as early as September, and there is always a "100 days before Christmas" countdown.

And the entirety of the celebration extends up to the arrival of the Magi, the Three Kings, on January 6. Being a Catholic country, this is more than just a tradition, it is a way to commemorate the birth of Christ, but it has become embedded in our culture.

However, these are simply an engraved memory, as I have not spent holidays back home for a decade, as I have lived overseas – in the United Arab Emirates to be exact – for well over six years.

Dubai is renowned for its over-the-top architecture, über-lavish shopping malls and lively nightlife scene.

The Burj Khalifa (an 830m tall skyscraper, and still the tallest building in the world) is lit up every New Year's Eve, when hundreds of thousands of visitors are coming to this ultramodern city, to witness the extravagant and world-class fireworks display.

Meanwhile, after moving here in Estonia and spending four holidays in different countries (this year, by default because of the travel restrictions), there was definitely a struggle to cope with the new environment, practices, and ways the holidays are observed in Estonia and the other European countries I've spent holidays in.

While this did not instantly happen overnight, it made me recognize and appreciate that a gloomy atmosphere plays a role in the holiday – it gives a sense of serenity and calmness in the form of sunless days and a dark gray sky.

White the idea of a "white Christmas" is something that both foreigners and locals alike are looking forward to, this is the one event on the foreigner's bucket list, to witness snowfall.

Especially for those who come from countries where winter is only represented through the imagination, having the first experience of snowfall is undoubtably one for the books. Furthermore, there are people who simply enjoy the cold weather, delicate snowfall (or even blizzards), and find a sense of satisfaction as the temperature dips into the negative.

As the saying goes: "There's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes", thus gearing up in accordance to the weather is paramount. Having the proper mindset and expectation plays an important part to avoid unexpected dilemma. Before settling here in Estonia, I had equipped myself with a suitable knowledge about the country, things to expect and so on, by going to reliable websites like visitestonia.com; culture.ee and estonica.org.

With that in hand, researching ahead of time about the salient facts associated with winter such as its usual duration, temperature forecasts, winter-specific events and activities (Christmas markets, cross-country skiing, ice skating, etc.) and following the country's rules (use of a reflector after dark) will certainly decrease the stress-related problems connected with winter. The odds of being in a state of perplexity or uncertainty over what to do in a difficult situation – a.k.a. the winter months – is less likely to happen, simply by knowing the important details and keeping track of the latest information about the coldest season of the year.

Despite of all the planning and goal setting, truth be told, there is going to be a curvesnowball (insert pun) that could just hit someone. Homesickness and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), commonly known as the "winter depression", are all examples of mental and emotional breakdowns that usually occurs during this time of the year.

Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in the U.S., has described homesickness as a form of emotional stress resulting from separation from loved ones, specifically family and friends, and from a "familiar, supportive environments." Homesickness can manifest in both mild and intense forms, where a person may feel depression, social detachment, inability to concentrate, apathy, and so on.

In extreme cases, the manifestation could extend to physical manifestations such as gastric and intestinal problems, headache and fatigue (Gismondi, 2020). On the other hand, Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or sometimes referred to as the "winter depression" which is related to the changes of season, and begins and ends at about the same time every year (NHS 2018).

Feeling of despair and lethargy, a persistent low mood, irritability, craving for carbohydrates, and sleeping for longer than normal, with difficulty in getting up in the morning, are just some of the symptoms of SAD. A range of treatments are available for both SAD and the physiological effects of homesickness, and consulting a family doctor is always ideal, so they can recommend the most suitable treatment programs.

After spending several winter months here in Estonia, I have gained insights and learned that it is very crucial to know how to take care of oneself. So far, here are my takeaways:

After spending several winter months here in Estonia, I have gained insights and learned that it is very crucial to know how to take care of oneself. So far, here are my takeaways:

  • Due to the lack of exposure to the sun, there will be physiological effects which correspond to Vitamin D deficiency. Thus, supplements can prevent this to happen.
  • Because of the cold temperature outside and sudden blasts of hot air from central heating units, cracked and dry skin is inevitable. So, an adequate use of moisturizer and lip care can impede any of these to occur.
  • The risk of hypothermia (frostbite in extreme cases) can be prevented simply by wearing suitable clothing.
  • The chance of getting seasonal colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses caused by virus is very high. Therefore, it is essential to eat healthy, exercise or have an indoor activity and take supplements can prevent any winter ailments. And because of the current Coronavirus situation, one must take twice the effort to take care of him/herself by strictly complying to the country's regulations, wearing oface-masks, hand-washing and social distancing.
  • Responsibly enjoy the environment (while wearing a mask) and have some "me time". This helped me realize, realign and reevaluate my future goals and plans.
  • Having friends in the foreign country destination is necessary to get the physical presence of a support system. However, given the current circumstances due to the pandemic, constant communication via videocall or even a simple message with any family members, close friends and loved ones can somehow ease the blues away.

This is some basic information which we often neglect and tend to set aside. But if we try to consider any of these things, integrate them into our daily life, and try to have a positive perspective on a negative situation, the likelihood of stress-related problems during winter months will be reduced, if not gone altogether.

Rowell Joel Lao Malabanan was until recently an intern with Novaator, ERR's science portal operated in conjunction with the University of Tartu. He has lived in Estonia for two-and-a-half years and is currently studying at Tallinn University.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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