Cabin fever may be road to depression

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— Winter blues? Cabin fever? Valley fever? Most of us feel this way from time to time. A strong urge to escape from the winter doldrums is a common response to prolonged snow and cold.

Sandy, a 42-year-old resident of Steamboat Springs, grew up in the East, where signs of spring come in early March. "I moved here five years ago, and every year since then, I get grumpy by mid-February," she said. "I know if I don't get away for a couple of weekend trips to Grand Junction or Denver, I'll be even more miserable until the snow melts."

Symptoms of depression: Sad, anxious or "empty" mood Sleeping too little or too much Changes in weight or appetite Loss of pleasure or interest in activities Feeling restless or irritable Trouble concentrating, remembering or making decisions Fatigue or loss of energy Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless Physical symptoms that don't respond to treatment Thoughts of death or suicide

Everyone who chooses to live here throughout the winter has his or her coping mechanisms for winter survival in the Rockies. For some, it is immersing themselves in outdoor activities such as skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing or snowshoeing. For others, it's hunkering down with a good book, quilting, catching up on the latest videos or spending time on other indoor projects.

And sometimes people attempt to cope with the winter blahs by isolating themselves or indulging in too much drinking, eating or smoking. If they continue this behavior for very long, depression may set in, making life even more difficult.

"Two years ago I learned I had seasonal affective disorder. I get depressed from lack of enough sunlight in the winter," said Janice, a 36-year-old resident of Routt County. "My therapist recommended a light box (full spectrum lighting similar to natural sunlight) and making sure I get daily exercise, preferably outdoors. Since then, winters are much more manageable for me."

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression affects about 19 million Americans. Eighty percent of people who seek help can get relief through medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both. However, statistics show that only one in three people actually seek help.

"How do I know if I've got the winter blahs or I'm actually depressed?" This common question is an important one. If you have experienced five or more of the symptoms listed by the National Mental Health Association for longer than two weeks, chances are you are suffering from depression.

The next step is to talk with your physician, let him or her know what your symptoms are, ask for a referral to a mental health professional and make a commitment to yourself to get the help you need.

Nancy Young, MS, LPC, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Steamboat Springs and Craig.

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