Aging Well: Beating the winter and holiday blues |

Aging Well: Beating the winter and holiday blues

Tamera Manzanares

Editor's Note: This article originally was published Dec. 12, 2007. It has been updated for accuracy.

Amidst colorful decorations and holiday music, some smiles mask sadness, anxiety, irritation and hopelessness.

For many people, the holiday season is a time for family, friends, festivities and joy.

For others, the holidays further emphasize loss or loneliness while making it even harder to cope with depression and other life challenges.

Some may be tempted to just hole up and wait for the holidays and winter to pass. However, local experts familiar with depression and loss issues say that setting limits, accepting one's emotions and needs and creating support networks are among ways people can handle the difficult aspects of the holidays and winter.

Winter blues

Icy temperatures, stifling snow and shorter days can be enough to make some people feel lethargic and sad. Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression related to a lack of sunlight, which can change the chemical balance in one's body, said Tom Gangel, regional director of Colorado West Regional Mental Health, which includes the Craig and Steamboat Mental Health Centers.

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He estimated about 10 percent of people experience SAD. Those with mild depression symptoms often find relief with daily exposure to special lights that help replace lost sunlight. The lights can be purchased at various sources or rented through local mental health facilities.

Fresh air and exercise are good for almost all depressed patients because of the beneficial chemicals released during exercise. In general, doing things differently, like taking a walk instead of staying indoors, or changing the way you do a task that normally makes you sad, can help balance some of the changes that occur in the body as a result of depression, Gangel said.

"The body and the mind start to function in a really well-oiled manner," he said. "If you can change what you are used to, you can change how you are feeling."

People can sometimes pull themselves out of a mild depression by learning to let go of pressures and expectations, especially during the holidays.

"If you can just kind of let go and roll with the punches, it can make life a lot easier," Gangel said.

There are different types and degrees of depression, so it's important to recognize when to seek professional help. If symptoms such as lethargy, changes in sleep, irritability, worrying and thoughts of death or suicide last more than one to two weeks or start to become pervasive, one should consider professional treatment.

Setting limits

Holiday expectations, including family gatherings, noisy parties and forced cheer, can be particularly overwhelming for people already suffering from depression.

"I think the holidays are just hard, and especially in a town like this where there are tourists who are happy to be here — or appear happy — and you think, 'Why can't I be like them?'" said Ronna Autrey, who facilitates a depression and bipolar support group in Steamboat.

The group discussed ways participants can cope with the holidays and resist the urge to isolate themselves, which can make depression worse.

Social commitments can be easier with limits — such as agreeing to attend a party but planning to stay only an hour, Autrey said.

Difficult family gatherings can be made bearable by taking walks, escaping to the kitchen to help prepare food and taking breaks from the crowd.

It's also helpful to balance family or social obligations with activities you enjoy — such as attending a concert or snowshoeing with a friend.

"Sometimes the dynamics of family is tough during the holidays for all of us," Autrey said. "We can be at our best or at our worst."

Communication with family and friends about one's depression or bipolar issues, while hard, can be beneficial in breaking the ice and embarrassment people may feel about their problems or how they've dealt with others' issues, she said.

Similarly, it's important to establish a support network of friends who understand depression and can help when you are having a bad day.

The peer-led support group offers participants a safe place where they know they won't be judged. They learn effective techniques for handling their conditions while establishing important bonds with each other.

"I just can't emphasize enough how much they help each other," Autrey said.

Coping with loss

Individuals coping with the loss of a loved one may feel pressure to put on a happy face during the holidays, but it's important they remain sensitive to their grief and not stuff their emotions, said Katy Thiel, social worker and bereavement counselor for the VNA Hospice program.

Defining boundaries or being realistic about commitments while taking time to be sad can help people through the grieving process. For example, be OK with not sending Christmas cards or with leaving a party if you're uncomfortable or sad.

"It's a time to be really self-aware and sensitive to your needs and to really nurture yourself while being prepared for whatever emotions may come up," said Thiel, who led a bereavement support group focused on coping with the holidays.

It's also OK to let others know how you are feeling and to talk about the person you've lost.

Grieving individuals can honor the person they've lost by lighting a candle on Christmas Eve or encouraging family members to share memories of that person during a holiday meal. Another way to honor the person that has died is to volunteer for a charity they held dear or make a donation in that person's name, Thiel said.

— Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information, visit or call 871-7606.


• Immediate support is available for individuals in crisis. To reach a local mental health professional, call 879-1090 in Routt County or 824-6541 in Moffat County.

• A peer support group for people with bipolar disorder or depression meets at 6:30 p.m. the first and third Wednesday of each month in Conference Room 2 at the Yampa Valley Medical Center. For more information, call Ronna Autrey at 846-8182.

• A support group for those that have attempted suicide meets at noon the first and third Wednesday of each month at the Rollingstone Respite House. Goals are to learn coping skills and meet a network of people that can help. For more information, call Autrey, 846-8182.

• Heart Beat of Steamboat, a peer led support group for those that have lost a friend or family member to suicide, meets at noon the second and fourth Thursday of each month at the Rollingstone Respite House. For more information, contact Autrey at 846-8182. For information about Heart Beat of Moffat County, call Sandy at 871-7682.

• A bereavement support group meets from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays at the Rollingstone Respite House. Grief support for children also is available. For more information, call 879-1632.

For information about bereavement support groups in Craig, call 824-8233.

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