The seasons affect our mood and sometimes significantly so. There are biological reasons for this. For example, changes in seasons affect melatonin and serotonin, which play not just a role in mood but also sleep. Some people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. SAD is a type of depression that usually starts in the fall and continues until spring.
Knowing how the weather and seasons can affect you is an important way to stay on top of your mental health. This is especially important if you’re in recovery. Mood changes in the winter can create recovery challenges. If you’re aware of these risks, you can proactively create a plan to deal with them, similar to how you winter-proof your home.
Seasonal Affective Disorder in Colorado
Some states are harder hit by seasonal affective disorder and seasonal mental health effects than others. Colorado is a state where there may be more effects. Colorado has very cold winters that may force you indoors for long periods. When you’re indoors, you’re not getting sunlight and this year many people are also continuing to social distance because of coronavirus. Even if you are going outdoors, the days are short.
It’s not just Colorado—some parts of the country are more susceptible than others to dealing with SAD and other seasonal mood changes, including parts of the western U.S. and the northeast.
Substance Abuse in Ski Towns
In addition to SAD, substance abuse is also a concern. Colorado is known for winter sports and has some of the most popular ski towns in the world. Unfortunately, these towns are often areas where alcohol abuse and substance abuse are prevalent. There’s a certain “party” atmosphere that facilitates these trends. A study in 2017 found ski resort employees had a higher rate of drug and alcohol abuse than the general population.
In that study, risky alcohol use was nearly 83% for seasonal snow workers, compared to 58% of nonseasonal workers. The rate of drug use was 8.3% compared to 2.8%.
Suicide & Altitude
Worsening the mental health issues in ski towns is altitude. Suicide rates are often higher than average in ski towns. In Colorado as a whole, the per capita suicide rate is higher than the national rate. In 2016, the Colorado per capita suicide rate was 20.3 per 100,000 residents, compared to the national rate of 13.3 suicides per 100,000. In general, western states also tend to have higher suicide rates. For example, the suicide rate in Montana is 25.3 and in Wyoming, it’s 28. As such, the Rocky Mountains are often called the suicide belt.
Altitude may play a role. The higher the elevation, the less oxygen in the air. Most ski towns are at least 8,000 feet above sea level. That causes metabolic stress for our brains and bodies. Your body learns how to cope with less oxygen over time. Even so, researchers theorize that not getting enough oxygen regularly can lead to depression and anxiety.
Staying Mentally Healthy During Colorado’s Winter Season
To stay healthy throughout the winter, have a plan in place. Your plan should be personal to you and should involve strategies that you know will help you weather challenges you face. By knowing that you’re going to face seasonal challenges, you’re already better prepared to deal with them. Here are some tips to help you create your winter mental health preparedness plan:
- Write down your triggers, and have a plan to deal with them if they happen. When we write something down, it helps us understand what’s happening in our brains a bit better, and it also helps you stay accountable.
- Have a schedule. Even if you’re working or studying at home and not leaving the house much this winter, you can still follow a schedule.
- Create a support network and reach out to them when you need to. This might mean in-person, but you can also lean on your support network virtually through video conference platforms.
- Consider using light therapy. With light therapy, you use a lightbox for around 30 minutes each morning during the winter months. This replicates the effects of the sun, and it can help keep your melatonin and neurotransmitter levels in balance, even if you aren’t getting much sun.
- Exercise regularly. Exercising is good for staying on track with the rest of your schedule and positive mental health.
Recognizing Signs of SAD
The big difference between depression and SAD is the seasonal component. SAD tends to start and end at the same time each year. SAD is a subtype of depression and the symptoms are similar to that of major depressive disorder. Symptoms will usually last for four or five months a year.
Symptoms of SAD include:
- Depression most of the day every day
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Sleep disturbances, such as oversleeping
- Overeating or craving carbohydrates
- Feeling hopeless
- Problems with concentration
- Social withdrawal
- Low energy
Wintertime Relapse Prevention Planning
If you’re in recovery, SAD symptoms can be an additional challenge or a relapse trigger. The best thing you can do is revisit your relapse prevention plan and address any seasonal issues you’re experiencing or anticipate may come up.
Outline specific actions you’re going to take to maintain your recovery. Be sure to include the steps you’ll take if you feel that you’re experiencing setbacks in your recovery as well. Many of the same tactics and tips listed above for positive mental health planning will also work for relapse prevention.
Finding Help for Substance Abuse & Depression in Colorado
Despite ongoing social distancing this winter, social connection and support remain integral to your recovery and mental health. The Recovery Village Palmer Lake offers many options that allow you to keep working on your recovery while staying distanced.
Teletherapy is available for substance abuse treatment and mental health conditions. We also have alternatives to in-person meetings. Contact us today and learn more about these and other options that might meet your needs.
- Warne, Maria, et. al. “Risky Consumption of alcohol and drugs among employees at ski resorts.” NAD, 2017. Accessed November 9, 2020.
- Dove, Molly. “Shorter Days, Colder Weather Affect Some Coloradans’ Mental Health.” Aspen Public Radio, November 4, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2020.
- Fuller, Kristen, MD. “An Increase in Suicide Rates Among Residents in Ski Towns?” Psychology Today, January 24, 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.