Winter Warriors: Preparing for Cold Weather as a Vestibular Patient

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of On The Level.

By Karen R Mizrach

Those of you who live in a part of the world that is heading into winter can be proactive to ensure you stay safe and healthy through this season of weather challenges, holiday expectations, and changes in daylight hours. All of these factors can impact our balance and overall sense of well-being. With a bit of planning and mental  adjustment, we can thrive this winter.

Holiday Gatherings

Unlike animals that hibernate during the cold winter months, people often get busier. We have a big holiday season with Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Years, and more, all keeping us bustling, and often stressed. Those of us with balance challenges need to be extra vigilant. The keys to tackling the holidays are to prioritize and pace yourself.

Which events do you enjoy the most? Do those and drop extras that may be exhausting. Instead of scheduling full days and risking getting overwhelmed, try to focus on one task a day. If you feel fine afterward, you always have the option to do more. But, it’s better to do less and enjoy yourself than to overdo it and need to recover.

Remind people around you that while you love them and want the holidays to be wonderful, you do need to attend to your health. Have family and friends consider that holidays don’t always have to be the same every year. Instead of clinging to traditions that you can no longer handle, create a more relaxed, manageable atmosphere. As Dr. Rauch recently said in a VeDA panel discussion, “Find your new journey forward.”

“In the depth of winter I finally learned there is in me an invincible summer.”

– Albert Camus

Staying Active

As busy as we may feel, this is also a time of year when we tend to be more sedentary, which can set back our progress on the “keep moving” front. If you find that winter keeps you from taking your walks and getting out in the world, try to identify some indoor activities or exercises that you can incorporate into your day. There are many online programs to follow, Tai Chi classes on Netflix, or home exercise equipment that can be beneficial. You can take up paint-by-numbers or cook new soup recipes or do some home projects you’ve been putting off. Feeling productive is important, even if it means simply dusting your bookshelves.

If possible, try to get outdoors a bit each day. Sitting on your porch or a park bench can expose you to important sunlight and fresh air. If you live alone, this may be the time to say “hello” to neighbors and other winter warriors.

Staying Safe in the Cold

Winter weather can be challenging even for those lucky souls who balance like flamingos. Be alert – Icy, snowy, or windy days can present conditions that are not only unsafe but unsettling for the balanced-challenged. Be prepared with good boots (think traction), waterproof options for walking, and good hiking poles.

Staying warm keeps your muscles relaxed, reducing your risk of falling. And covering your ears protects you from having any more assaults on an already sensitive balance center. Take time to winterize your wardrobe. Good gloves, hats, thermal layers, and comfortable jackets all will make your time outside safer. And don’t forget sunglasses, even in the winter. Our sensitive eyes are still sensitive in the cold weather.

Being Prepared

If you haven’t already, now is the time to stock up on batteries, sand for snow traction, non-perishable food supplies, and backup medications. It’s better to overthink what you’ll need for winter in your area, rather than be caught without something you need. One trigger we all can try to avoid is unnecessary stress. Losing power, being stranded at home, or feeling unsafe, can create havoc in our bodies and brains, leading to increased symptoms.

For those of you that live alone, it’s particularly important to think through winter plans. Keep in touch with friends and family as much as possible, and if you need help don’t hesitate to call your most trusted contacts. The more prepared you are, the easier you’ll slide through (hopefully not literally!) this tricky time of year. Hopefully, you’ll find ways to enjoy the often beautiful days of snow or time relaxing at home.

Time Changes

One curveball that sneaks up on us during the change in season, is the daylight and time changes. We often have established daily patterns that help us cope, so these schedule fluctuations can be difficult. Be kind to yourself as the days change and you need to tweak your own schedules. If you have trouble navigating the world in the dark, stay home after a certain time of day when possible. It helps to be ready for these changes by setting up a cozy area of the house where you settle in after dark.

Asking for Help

Don’t forget there is no shame in asking for help. There are food delivery services, teens who can shovel, friends who can drive, and neighbors who can share a cup of tea when you need company.

Even if you’re not a winter lover, maybe this year you can organize life so you are one notch better than just surviving. Be safe. Be aware. Be kind to yourself. Be on the lookout for good moments. As always, be kind to and patient with yourself.

Safety in Any Season

For those of you who live somewhere that is not going into a cold winter, make sure to take the safety precautions necessary for your climate. Be prepared for hurricanes, heavy rains, or daylight changes. Every location has its challenges. Take time to gather what you’ll need in those situations, so seasonal challenges don’t become vestibular symptom triggers.