April 1st, 2014

The Psy who came in from the cold

It’s cold – deep, penetrating, bone-chilling, soul-killing cold. That sentence may be a peculiar thing to read when this issue hits the streets on the first of April but now, as I write at the beginning of March, it’s cold. It has been one of the coldest winters in history with snow as far south as Georgia and the entire eastern part of the country swallowed up in one polar vortex after another. Last year, no one even knew what a polar vortex was and now it’s just another phrase to describe the weather, taking its place alongside familiar Bermuda highs, heat waves and tropical depressions. As psychologists we know that cold weather, like any stressful situation, is not just something we have to endure but a potential source of new learning. These are some of the lessons this cold winter has taught me.

1) Cold induces wishful thinking and blurred vision. It is hard to imagine summer or even spring when every day starts in single digits. Recently, my wife glanced at our thermometer with its outdoor monitor and cheerfully announced that we hit the 66-degree mark before breakfast. Incredible, I answered, it was 49 twenty minutes ago and I thought that was warm. So we missed the decimal points. At least we were awake and out from under the covers, no small achievement when you’re in the habit of turning the thermostat down at night from an almost comfortable setting of slightly chilly to a reading of you’ve got to be kidding.

2) Mittens are better than gloves for doing most things in the cold. This one should be obvious. In unity there is strength and also warmth. Five fingers in unrestrained contact with one another generate heat and, when that heat is trapped inside a woolen mitten, the effect is like that of a greenhouse for the hands. This winter, I have mastered driving with mittens and have even learned a little trick to enhance their warmth. Remove first one mitten and then the other and place them in turn in front of the open heating vent on your dashboard. When you have mastered this technique, your mitten will fill like a hot air balloon, producing a very comfortable pocket in which to insert your hand. With enough practice, you should be able to accomplish this warming exercise smoothly and effortlessly while keeping your car on the road with one mittened hand. Once you have achieved this beginner’s level of proficiency, you are ready for the two mitten simultaneous warming maneuver. Please use caution in attempting this advanced technique and remember to do it only when you are stopped at a red light and never while your vehicle is in motion. I have also found a mitten to be an efficient insulator when holding a dish of ice cream on a cold night.

3) You may eat ice cream on cold nights. Use one mitten to hold the dish as noted in number 2 above.

4) There are some things you cannot do while wearing mittens even in cold weather. While you can learn to drive with mittens, it is extremely difficult to eat a bagel with cream cheese with one mittened hand while holding the steering wheel with the other. You also cannot use the push button function to change the station on your car radio. You can listen to an audio book while wearing mittens but you cannot change discs without first removing one of them. If your reading taste, like mine, runs to Nordic mysteries set in Helsinki or Oslo, you may continue to listen but you may want to turn up the heat in your car. It is perfectly acceptable to pump gas while wearing mittens but quite impossible to punch your zip code into the keypad when paying with your credit card. When you get to your office, it goes without saying that you cannot type a psychological testing report while wearing mittens. Of course, you wouldn’t want to unless your office is as cold as mine.

5) When your office is unbearably cold, be sure to have an extra warm jacket or sweater tucked away in the bottom drawer of your filing cabinet to put on over the many layers you are already wearing. Let your patients and other visitors know that they are welcome to wear their down parkas in your office or, better yet, keep a few lightweight insulated jumpsuits handy for your guests to use. These are available from NASA at surprisingly affordable prices and are also tax deductible as office expenses.

6) Man does not live by poetry alone. On one of this winter’s typically arctic days, I sent my son and daughter what I thought was a particularly apt quote by Victor Hugo. “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” While they both liked the quote, they also made it clear that it was about time for some real sun.

Now that spring is here, maybe that time has come. An irrepressible member of our hospital community said it best in a recent morning meeting, “I am back from the dead. Today I feel great and look forward to having fun with my friends.” So do I – in a nice warm place.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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