10 tips for coping with the darkness

On an overcast fay, a woman walks on duckboards towards Lammassaari island, marshlands stretching to the horizon on either side.
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If you’ve recently moved to Helsinki, you’ve probably already noticed: it’s awfully dark here at this time of the year. No, you never really get used to it (trust us, we’ve tried), but there are ways to cope with the darkness that we would like to share with you!

1. Remember, you’re not alone

Do you feel tired all the time? Are you sleeping badly? Are you a bit down? Do you have a craving for sweets but not for going outside to jog? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Finns have a term for all of this: “kaamosoireet”, i.e. seasonal affective disorder. One in five Finnish adults are affected strongly by the associated symptoms. The basic cause is that there is simply too little light for the brain to find the right circadian rhythm and synchronise your body clock.

According to Minna Huotilainen, a brain researcher at the University of Helsinki, the ideal place on earth for our brains to live would be the equator: 12 hours of light and sun followed by as many hours of deep darkness at night. By comparison, on the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice in December, Helsinki gets less than 6 hours of daylight. So don’t worry; it’s not about you individually or the Finnish culture but rather purely physiological!

2. Escape outside in the middle of the day

The best medicine for coping with the dark is to go outside at noon, brain researcher Minna Huotilainen advises. That’s when you will get the most out of those precious rays of sun. Exercise also synchronises the circadian rhythm more effectively outdoors during daytime hours than indoors in the evening.

So make a reservation on your calendar for going outside. Even a short walk is useful. If you want to live like the locals, head to one of the many great outdoor areas in and around Helsinki, such as Nuuksio National Park or the islands of Suomenlinna, on your day off or the weekend. Even if you don’t have time to enjoy the outdoors during the day, be sure to exercise regularly; it also reduces seasonal affective symptoms. To ensure a good night’s sleep, remember to stop exercising a couple of hours before bedtime. 

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3. Bathe yourself in light

Studies show that light therapy lamps can help with seasonal affective symptoms. You should bathe yourself in the light for 30 to 60 minutes daily. Light therapy is most effective before nine o’clock in the morning. So let the light shine on you as soon as you wake up!

A sunrise simulator, or wake up light, can also be helpful. It works like the morning sun. The amount of light in the room gradually increases just before the alarm rings, so you don’t have to get up in the pitch dark!

4. Enjoy some evening hygge

Have you heard of hygge? It is a trendy Danish word and means comfort and cosiness.

Fortunately, the golden period of hygge is at hand. In Finland, autumn and winter are a time to stay home and enjoy the cosiness, so light some candles and get comfortable under a blanket on the sofa.

Coincidentally, evening hygge is also good for our brains at this time of year. It creates the contrast between day and evening that the brain craves. In order for your brain to maintain a proper circadian rhythm, it should be active during the day (passive sitting in front of a machine does not meet this definition) and relaxed in the evening.

If the rhythm gets mixed up, it can result in difficulties falling asleep and waking up at night. As a result, the brain will not have time to complete its work, says brain researcher Minna Huotilainen. The brain uses the night for processing memories and emotions, for example. 

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5. Activate the night light settings on your screens

There is a lot of talk these days about how staring at computer and phone screens is detrimental to sleep. No doubt this is the case if you read work e-mails or work on a presentation for the following day right before going to bed. But laptops and phones are not an absolute evil, says brain researcher Minna Huotilainen.

It’s the same whether you’re staring at a TV, mobile phone or laptop, as long as the colour of the screen is appropriate for the situation. Bluish white is the shade of midday sunlight, so it tricks our bodies into thinking it’s daytime. Therefore, you should adjust the colour of the screen to a reddish tint for the evening. There are many free apps for this, such as f.lux. On many mobile devices, the night light can be activated to start automatically at a specific time. Lowering the brightness of the background colour also helps.

6. Just say no if someone offers you another cup of coffee

Finns love coffee. Finnish adults drink an average of five cups a day. As a result, you will probably be offered coffee at every turn. However, the caffeine in coffee can make it harder to sleep. And when you feel tired the next day, you will probably solve the problem – of course – by drinking more coffee. And so the vicious cycle begins.

If you want to optimise the amount of sleep you get in order to cope better with the darkness, it’s best to stop drinking coffee no later than five or six o’clock in the evening.

7. Meet people

When you look at the bleak view outside the window, it’s easy to feel lonely. You probably won’t see anyone at all, and maybe not even any lights, even if you’re living in the nation’s capital.

Don’t be left alone; call a friend and make a date instead! A good way just to see other people is to visit one of Helsinki's wonderful public saunas. At the same time, you will get a true Finnish cultural experience, as well as a relaxed body and mind!

Libraries are also good places to see people. For example, sit down in a comfortable chair in the stunning Oodi central library and read while enjoying the views over the city centre.

Two people wrapped up warm in matching orange coats are enjoying hot chocolate on a wintry day at Cafe Ursula's terrace.
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8. Step inside paradise

In wintertime in Helsinki, it’s all too easy to miss the colours and scents of summer. Fortunately, you can always visit Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden or the Winter Garden. Sit beneath the palms, smell all the scents and enjoy the tropical environment, flowering plants and lush greenery. If you like painting, you can also bring your watercolours with you!

9. Make sure you get enough vitamin D

It’s important to eat healthily during the dark time of the year. Healthy food can also help you cope. When you feel like something sweet, the best choices are fruits and berries. Have you already tasted Finnish blueberries? They are picked directly from the forest and are also available frozen from local shops.

It’s especially important to make sure you get enough vitamin D. You won’t get much of it naturally from the sun between October and March in Finland, but you can get it from the right foods and vitamin preparations. Eating unsaturated fats also does good for the mind and heart.

10. Look forward to when the days grow longer 

Always keep in mind that the seasonal darkness is only temporary. The winter solstice comes around 21 December, after which the worst is behind us. The days soon start to get longer again – slowly at first, about five minutes a week, but by the spring equinox on 20 March, the length of the days in Helsinki is already increasing by about six minutes a day.

By the beginning of May, you may already be hoping for no more light – but to no avail. At the brightest time of the year, during the summer solstice on 21 June, the length of the day in Helsinki is almost 19 hours!

Sources: Brain researcher Minna Huotilainen, thl.org, terveyskirjasto.fi, kuntaliitto.fi and ilmatieteenlaitos.fi

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If you’ve recently moved to Helsinki, you’ve probably already noticed: it’s awfully dark here at this time of the year. No, you never really get used to it (trust us, we’ve tried), but there are ways to cope with the darkness that we would like to share with you!