Self Care in the Darkness

It’s that time of year when the nights start drawing in, the weather starts getting colder, nature starts to shut down in preparation for the winter ahead. It can be a time that can affect many of us mentally, as we struggle with the relative lack of sunlight and being cooped up at home more (just as we are getting used to being allowed out again!). This can be especially true for families of children with special or additional needs, for whom survival from one day to the next can be the reality anyway. At least in the summer, there might be more options for ways to keep our children occupied and engaged.

But autumn, and even winter, can bring their own special opportunities too. Hygge is a Danish and Norwegian word for a mood of cosiness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment. Studies show that people living in the arctic circle are armed with a mindset linked to this that helps combat the long ‘polar night’, a bit of ‘hygge’ might come in handy for us all especially for parents of children with special or additional needs.

In the depths of winter, Tromsø in Norway gets no direct sunlight at all, and only the faint glow of indirect sunlight for a couple of hours or so a day. Yet, despite this, Tromsø’s citizens do not seem to struggle with low mood or seasonally affective disorder (SAD) in the way that might be expected. In fact, generally, the mental health of the good folk of Tromsø is in excellent shape.

So why is this? What is the secret that they share? And how can this be relevant to special needs parents? Well, it seems that there is a ‘mindset’ that people living north of the arctic circle share, and the further north you go, the stronger this mindset becomes. How people perceive and frame stressful events strongly influences how they are affected by them.

People who think about adverse situations and events as a challenge, an opportunity to learn new things and to adapt to new ways of living are likely to cope much better than people who focus on the immediate difficulties as well as negative outcomes that “might” happen in the future. How we respond affects our mental health and well-being, as well as our physical health.

So, what does this Scandinavian positivity teach us as special needs parents? Well, it’s so easy to be dominated by negative feelings, fears for the future, the mental and physical exhaustion we can often experience. But maybe if we can train ourselves to find the positives, to look for the opportunities to learn and adapt, we can find our own ‘hygge’ too. We can find that there are ways to cope with our own ‘times of winter’, those dark periods where it all seems too much. And the more we try it, the better we’ll get at it!

This isn’t to sugar-coat things or to deny the difficulties that we face, and we can’t hide from these challenges any more than the citizens of Tromsø can pretend that the sun is still rising. However, by recognising our own capacity to control our responses we may all find some hidden reserves of strength and resilience to help us face each day.

Hot chocolate anyone?


About Mark Arnold

Mark heads up Urban Saints pioneering additional needs ministry programme and is co-founder of the ‘Additional Needs Alliance’, a learning and support community. He is a ‘Churches for All’ partner, a member of both the ‘Council for Disabled Children’ and the ‘Living Fully Network’, and serves on the executive for ‘Children Matter!’ Most importantly, he is dad to James, a 17-year-old Autistic boy with Learning Difficulties and Epilepsy.

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