Jackson residents find ways to battle winter blues

By: BEN GRAHAM, Jackson Hole News & Guide
By: BEN GRAHAM, Jackson Hole News & Guide

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — For the group of women who gather afternoons at the Senior Center of Jackson Hole to play the ancient tile game mah-jongg, socializing and competition help stymie the winter blues.

Cabin fever tends to set in during the long, cold winter months, especially for those who are less mobile.

"You have to get out," mah-jongg ace and east Jackson resident Karen Swaim said. "You have to exercise even if it's just walking up and down the hallway."

But the gaming ladies now have another weapon in their blues-battling arsenal: a lamp. The senior center actually purchased two of them in January.

The 70-watt, full-spectrum floor lamp shines down on the game players, mimicking outdoor light and spurring chemical changes in the brain and body that experts say can lift their moods.

Swaim, 68, said her doctor recommended that she use one of the specialized lights.

"She said a happy light would be a good thing for me," Swaim said.

The lights can be especially helpful for the elderly, who may have trouble getting outside into the sun during the winter.

"What I see happening with older folks particularly is you start to stay in because it's cold or icy," senior center executive director Becky Zaist said.

Lethargy or depression can begin to set in, she said, and the feelings can snowball.

"I wanted (the lamps) to be something where they get the benefit of the light but also some social contact," Zaist said of the senior center's new equipment.

Indeed doctors and counselors say all of the above, but especially light, are important in combating feelings of depression that can occur during winter.

"Light is the first and best treatment," said nurse Joy Nelson Lundeen, owner-operator of Biohealth, a biofeedback and behavioral health practice.

Winter blues may sound like a foreign concept in the winter wonderland that is Jackson Hole, but they don't just affect the elderly. It is quite common for people at our latitude to experience some form of depression when the days become shorter, Lundeen said.

Experts believe genetics, age and an individual body's natural chemistry all play roles.

In the fall and winter, reduced levels of sunlight can disrupt your body's circadian rhythm, or internal clock, that allows you to get regular sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. Less light can also lead to a drop in serotonin, a chemical in the brain that affects mood, and melatonin, which also impacts sleep and mood.

"We don't notice it at first," Lundeen said of the effects. "People blame it on other things."

One of the first signs is a drop in energy. Women often talk about being sad, she said. In men it tends to manifest as anger or irritability.

People can experience a loss of motivation and sleep disturbance. Some may sleep too much and not want to get out of bed.

"Carb craving" and weight gain are also common, she said, as is decreased libido.

When symptoms are severe and reoccur each year, a person can be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder.

Technically the disorder is defined as a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year, which for most people is in the fall and winter, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Treatments include psychotherapy, medication and light therapy, also known as phototherapy.

The Mayor Clinic encourages people to not just brush it off as "seasonal funk." Experts in Jackson Hole offer the same advice.

However, they also stress that just because you're feeling a bit down doesn't mean you have the full-blown disorder.

"Addressing the winter blues will oftentimes allow us to prevent or partially treat seasonal affective disorder," Lundeen said.

Bob Skaggs, a licensed professional counselor, is a proponent of light therapy, but he also encourages people to simply get outside, even if for a brief amount of time.

His recommendation is for people to take a walk around lunchtime, even if it's just for 15 minutes. And because wearing sunglasses or ski goggles can block vital portions of the sun's rays, he says to take the shades off.

"Drink that sunshine in," Skaggs said.

But if it's overcast and cloudy for an extended period of time, lamps can help.

The Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center has two lamps, executive director Deidre Ashley said. One is in the agency's waiting room; the other at Mountain House, a therapeutic outreach center for adults.

As for the energizing effect of the therapeutic lamps, Swaim said she can testify to that.

"I sat under there too long and I couldn't get to sleep that night," she said. "You can have too much of a good thing."

Lundeen and Skaggs recommended sitting under a lamp for at least 20 minutes, but not too late in the afternoon.

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Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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