Battling the winter-time blues in Eagle County |

Battling the winter-time blues in Eagle County

Photo illustration by Steve Larson

When Rahm Fama moved to the valley from New Mexico, he didn’t come for the skiing or the snowboarding, he came for a job. That’s likely why Fama has trouble understanding other people’s enthusiasm for winter. During the summer, Fama travels as much as he can because once the snow begins to fall, his job dictates a very busy routine.

“Winter time is work, go home, wake up, work, go home, wake up. That’s what it is in the winter time ” it’s a depressed state,” Fama said.

While Fama likely wouldn’t be diagnosed as depressed by a doctor just because he’s not particularly fond of winter, it’s easy for the Avon resident to see how ” and why ” some people spend the winter months fighting a sadness they can’t shake. Six percent of people suffer from a severe form of winter depression, while another 10 to 20 percent deal with a milder form, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians Web site,

This type of depression is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD ” a legitimate disorder that often goes overlooked or ignored because those suffering from it don’t realize they’re battling something bigger than cabin fever or a few days of bad weather blues.

For many, the gray days of winter mean mood swings and varying levels of depression. It may not be as common here in Eagle County, where sunny days generally far outweigh rainy, freezing, bleak weather more commonly associated with Northern coastal states, but local physician Drew Werner said that each year he treats a fair amount of people who suffer from depression during the winter months at his family practice in the Eagle Valley Medical Center in Eagle. Werner agreed with the national statistics, estimating that 10 to 20 percent of Eagle County residents suffer from some form of SAD.

The symptoms of SAD are similar to other forms of depression and often times depend on the severity of the case. Lethargy, constant fatigue, mood swings, weight gain, social withdrawal and depression are the most common symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Web site,

Not everyone will experience all of the symptoms with the same intensity ” people who suffer from SAD run the gamut from feeling blue to feeling utterly hopeless ” but recognizing the warning signs is the first step to beating it, Werner said.

“You don’t want to wait until you’re getting disciplined at work and your boss is ready to fire you,” he said.

While the specific cause of SAD remains unknown, lack of sunlight during the winter months is a huge factor, Werner said. Much like Superman draws his power from the sun, sunlight also plays a big role in people’s happiness, Werner said. Sunlight stimulates the brain in a very positive way, causing the release of endorphins and serotonin, natural chemicals that help people feel good. But during the winter months, people are often times getting up when its dark, going to bed when its dark and working in offices that lack natural sunlight in between.

“That’s probably what is at the basis of a lot of it,” Werner said.

When the weather takes a turn for the worse it can keep people indoors, which may lead to less social interaction and physical activity, two things that effectively stave off feelings of depression.

“I think (SAD) is just a natural reaction to when the seasons are changing, to a point,” said Michelle Marzo, clinical therapist for Colorado West Mental Health Center in Vail.

She pointed out that most Americans ignore the sun anyway, and work late hours, or get up early to go to work, and all that darkness adds up eventually.

“We’re not following the seasons the way, probably, nature intended us to do,” Marzo said. “We’re against nature in a lot of ways.”

A treatment technique called light therapy can be helpful, Werner and Marzo both said.

Full-spectrum light bulbs can be installed in any light fixture in the house and are designed to imitate natural daylight more so than normal light bulbs. Werner also recommended using a light box ” literally one or more light bulbs inside a box ” because some models can be set to simulate the rising and setting of the sun, and sitting in front of the light for a certain period each day can reduce the symptoms of SAD.

No matter how bad the weather is, Werner recommends getting some form of outdoor exercise everyday. Anything will do ” skiing, snowboarding, jogging, snowshoeing or even a short walk.

“The people who really do well get outside and do their thing rain or shine, sleet or snow,” Werner said. “Get out and exercise. Don’t be a fair-weather exerciser … put on your jacket, get outside and do something.”

As with nearly every affliction and illness, Werner advocates a healthy, balanced diet.

For some SAD sufferers, the depression is a relentless and overwhelming force that requires more than a brisk walk and a lot of fruits and vegetables. Werner said that when SAD begins to negatively affect a person’s quality of life, it is important to seek out the help of a professional such as a mental health therapist or family physician.

“As soon as you’re at that point where you’re like ‘the quality of my life is suffering. I’ve tried doing things that I should do. I’ve tried getting out, I’ve tried exercising and it’s not working for me and I don’t see this getting better,'” that’s when someone should see a doctor, said Werner, who sees many patients every year with severe cases of SAD. In extreme cases, a doctor will likely recommend counseling or prescription antidepressants.

“(With) therapy you at least get to say to someone in a safe place, ‘God, I feel like crap,'” Marzo said. “Research shows that the combination of medication and therapy has the best outcomes.”

Because SAD is a cyclical disorder that affects people during specific times each year, it’s something that can be treated before the symptoms become debilitating.

“There are some people who so predictably get seasonal affective disorder that they will go on antidepressant medication maybe from September until March (every year),” Werner said.

It’s important to look at depression as a medical condition, not a personal failure, Werner said. Often times people will hide the fact that they are depressed, while they have no problem telling people when they have the flu.

“The biggest thing for people to think about is ‘how is this affecting my life? Am I just having some blue days or is it really beginning to affect my family, my social life or my work life?’ If it is, you probably really need to get some medical attention,” Werner said.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or

Common symptoms of SAD:

– Lethargy

– Fatigue

– Depression

– Mood swings

– Weight gain

– Tendency to oversleep

– Decreased social activity and

Recommended treatments for SAD:

Light therapy

Full-spectrum light bulbs

Outdoor exercise

Healthy diet

Stress management

” Dr. Drew Werner

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