Seasonal Affective Disorder – attending to the winter blues

Our active mountain lifestyle has its pros and cons when it comes to winter. With decreased daylight and cold temperatures, natural inclinations of animals — and most humans (especially those who don’t love winter sports) involve slowing down. In contrast, resort towns keep us revved up during ski season, working hard and playing hard. So, people who experience the winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can feel like the odd man out.

You might believe that in Colorado, with its claim to 300 days of annual sunshine, people wouldn’t suffer from SAD, but they do, according to many mental health experts, including licensed professional counselor Michelle Marzo, in Frisco.

“(SAD) sure does exist in the mountains,” Marzo says.

To partially explain why, people like Nolan Doesken, a climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center, say the 300-day count is nothing but an unmeasured PR slogan. Of course, Colorado does receive its fair share of sunny, or partially sunny days, especially when compared to the rest of the nation. But in reality, Doesken says the state averages just half of 300 full-sun days. Add fall and winter’s shorter daylight, and it makes sense people might experience some winter blues.

“The sun going down earlier does effect moods,” Marzo says. “When it starts getting dark at 5 p.m., you just want to hibernate. Unfortunately, the world of work doesn’t let us hibernate.”

Symptoms of SAD include moodiness, simple carbohydrate cravings, depression or grumpiness, sleeping more but still feeling tired, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in usual activities.

Many people begin feeling symptoms in September or October and feel relief in April or May.

It’s natural to feel urges to slow down with less daytime light, and when you can’t due to work or social pressures (and great snow), it can cause irritability.

“It’s the way our culture operates,” Marzo says. “It doesn’t accommodate for that fluctuation of rhythm.”

Other aspects may contribute to the winter blues. Changes in lighting, cooler temperatures, different smells — all of these trigger our senses, and thus our memories. These memories can range from back-to-school blues (from parents missing extra time with their kids to their own school-day memories that may not have been so fond), to upcoming holidays and family traditions. With so much emphasis on holidays, and thus family gatherings, people who moved to the mountains to live a bit of an alternative life, which doesn’t necessarily revolve around large, extended families, can feel a sense of loneliness, even if they love what they do and where they live. In fact, many people experience major depression around Thanksgiving and Christmas, Marzo says. Therapy and medication may be a route to try, but, if depression is related to light, then full-spectrum light therapy is usually, at the very least, an adjunct therapy.

Scientific studies have shown that bright light therapy is effective in treating SAD, but the light must emanate from full-spectrum bulbs. The light stimulates photoreceptors, including melanopsin, which assists in setting the body’s circadian rhythms. This can help with insomnia and fatigue.

“A lot of people swear by full-spectrum lights,” Marzo says. “It’s the little things that we don’t realize.”

Many companies, including Verilux, which some doctors recommend, offer full-spectrum lights in a variety of styles, including tabletop models and arcing floor lamps.

The light prompts the body to release hormones responsible for feelings of well-being. The lights can help people relax, focus, revitalize and combat SAD. Verilux’s compact lights fit easily on a desk or workstation and produce up to 10,000 LUX of natural spectrum light. The energy-efficient bulb lasts 10,000 hours and delivers no-buzz, flicker-free illumination that’s easy on the senses. The full-spectrum floor lamps stimulate the eye’s cones and rods, which reduces visual fatigue when compared to a regular lamp.

Full-spectrum light therapy should be administered close to the face/eyes for at least an hour a day; more time with the light often results in a bit more energy.

Other companies have developed alternative means to stimulating the brain as if it were bathed in natural light. Licensed practical counselor Rena Derezin, in Frisco, started using ear lights manufactured by Valke. She uses them 12 minutes a day, “and it has made all the difference,” she says.

While there are always skeptics when it comes to “alternative” approaches to treating depression and fatigue, SAD is a validated syndrome, and since the 1980s, full-spectrum light has been shown to improve symptoms.

In addition, simply taking time to accept any feelings of mild to moderate depression, knowing that it’s normal for many people during winter, can help reduce stress.

“Attend to it,” Marzo says. “Self-soothe instead of judging it as bad.”

by Kimberly Nicoletti

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