How to Thrive Rather than Just Survive This Winter:  How to Keep Those Winter Blues at Bay

Did I catch you with my title?  Good.  Now that I’ve got you hooked, I’ll admit it’s a bit misleading.  That’s not to say I won’t give you some solid mental health tips, but we’re going to dive a bit deeper than that.

As a therapist, my job is not that of a fixer.  I’m a healer.  I don’t fix things that are broken; I help wounded people heal. Essentially, I use my curiosity to help my clients uncover what the root of their troubles are.   And we heal from the ground up.

With that being said, what I want to explore with you in this article is what is at the root of winter blues, or what some people call seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

Until recently, most people thought that SAD was related directly to the amount of light, or rather lack thereof, each day.  I’m sure anyone who’s moved to Estes Park from the midwest will tell you that they don’t miss the 3 straight months of grey skies and no sun.  While I don’t discount the influence of light and think a supplement of Vitamin D would be beneficial for most people, that wouldn’t explain why the people of Tromso, Norway, where inhabitants receive only 2-3 hours of indirect sunlight November through January, see little difference in their mental health in the winter.  Or why my own experience with SAD changed in my early twenties.  Or why some people in Estes Park have SAD, and others don’t.  To go one step deeper, I wonder if YOU have experienced SAD every year of your life, or only some years?  And finally, why did the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) decide to leave out SAD in their latest edition, and instead list it as a specifier (“with seasonal pattern”) to major depressive disorder?

Is it possible that in the winter something else changes besides how long the sun appears in the sky?

A quick side note on depression:  To date in my career as a therapist, I have never met anyone who is depressed for no reason.  There is ALWAYS a reason.

When I was an intern at Harmony Foundation, my supervisor theorized that SAD had to do more with lack of getting outside, rather than sunlight.  That seemed like a pretty valid theory.  Personally, I know that my own experience with SAD diminished when I started trail running outside in the winter rather than always being inside a gym (not to discredit the gym as research shows there are substantial mental health benefits to exercise).  Plus, have you ever met one of the skiers or snowboarders in town?  They are STOKED when the first big snowfall hits.  

One other theory that I’ve read in various sources is that our social habits tend to change in the winter.  Besides major holidays, people tend to gather less in the winter, and even that option wasn’t considered a possibility for many this past year.  In his book “Lost Connections” Johann Hari theorized that most cases of depression and anxiety are due to disconnection in relationships.  When I worked with people with alcohol addictions, I can’t recall any instance of a client saying they were an alcoholic and went to the bar everyday.  Maybe that’s where the drinking started, but it didn’t become a problem until they started drinking at home every night, alone.  

While I won’t claim here that I have THE answer to seasonal affective disorder or winter blues, I will say that lack of connection to Nature, to other people, and to ourselves might be at the root.  However, I do want to clarify that connection is different from being at work or in a store and saying “hi” to people.  Real connection means that when we are together, we have the space to truly be ourselves and allow for the others to truly be themselves as well.  We can speak freely about our emotions and thoughts.  It ensures empathy and an allowance for each person, animal, tree to be amazing just as they are.  We connect, meaningfully, at our cores.

Before I move into ways to stay mentally healthy, or even improve mental health this winter, I won’t pretend that in the COVID era, things are tougher.  Much tougher.  As I wrote in an article last year for the EP Trail Gazette, it’s okay to grieve, to just allow the tears.  Once we find that release, it creates space for other possibilities.  For instance, re-reading what connection is, you may already be able to come up with different, creative ways to gather and connect with others.  

Mental Health Tips for Winter (in the Covid Era)

Mindset: To Dread or To Find Opportunity this Winter?

One other thing I learned when reading about the people of Tromso, Norway, is that they use a mindset tip similar to what I use with the athletes I work with.  When a race, or winter, is on the horizon, do you view it as a threat or a challenge?  When we view things as a challenge, we also tend to see opportunities for play and for growth while a threat is scary and we either want to fight it, flee, or shut down (depression)…and good luck fighting snowflakes.  

List Out Things You Are Looking Forward To

Remember that big snow storm we had in March?  I deemed it “The Great Snuggle Weekend of 2021” and wrote a list of all the things I planned to do: play on my neighborhood hill, bake banana bread, read a book, and snuggle with my pup.  Even if you are more like me, a summer person, there’s so much to look forward to in winter, especially in Estes Park. I’ll list a few below in more detail, but for starters, I’m looking forward to hot drinks at my favorite coffee shops in town and being able to walk into a restaurant without an hour wait!

Getting outside

In the mental health world, recent years have seen a boom of research and articles on the effect of nature and mental health.  In short, nature has been shown to reduce stress, calm our buzzing brains, and boost mood, not unlike an antidepressant.  You don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to enjoy outdoor activities either.  In town, there are still plenty of opportunities to hike, but just a simple walk around your neighborhood or bird watching from your deck will have benefits. The key is to see the beauty that is around you. If you can hike, you can also probably snowshoe.  If you don’t want to invest in a pair, you can rent a pair for a whopping $5 at Estes Park Mountain Shop.  If that’s not your speed, Trout Haven and the YMCA offer ice skating. Then there’s my personal favorite: good ol’ sledding, great for kids of all ages! And that leads to my next tip…

Snuggling

Perhaps my favorite part of winter is that it offers  constant opportunities for warm drinks, either made at home or stopping at a coffee shop on the way home from an outing.  I’m already day dreaming of finding a cozy spot upstairs at Inkwell & Brew and gazing out their large windows. Then there’s getting to wear oversized sweaters to work and calling it “fashion”, wrapping myself under blankets (or my dog, who sometimes pretends she is a weighted blanket), and fuzzy socks.  Truly, all these things are a form of self-soothing. Still, if you have a partner, child, or fur-kid around, research suggests two is better than one.  When we cuddle with someone we care about, we release what are known as the “feel good hormones” (serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine). 

Connecting with Others

This, I believe, is the biggest one.  Save for last year, I considered winter to be my favorite time to be a local in Estes Park because I could truly get the sense of being part of a small, mountain community.  While nothing can fully replace in-person interactions or hugs, virtual interfaces did help many of us stay in touch with loved ones and I would heavily encourage anyone to use it who for various reasons can’t see loved ones in person.  On the red-nosed reindeer side, I think there’s more hope this year with more education on the virus and treatment. Regardless, we beautiful humans in town have adapted as best we could, and when I simply asked in a locals online forum what community gathering opportunities were available, I received much more feedback than I expected.  From trivia at Rock Cut Brewing to locals night at Chippers Lane and Dine Around Town in March, there was something for all ages and interests.  If necessary, I know we’ll adapt and change again.  The key is that we maintain and strengthen our ties to one another through whatever means necessary.  We thrive in community through compassion, cooperation, and connection. 

This article was originally published in Live Well, Estes Park Trail Gazette.

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