By Steve Hubrecht 

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The sunny, relatively mild conditions that Columbia Valley residents are used to this time of year have returned.

Winters here see plenty of snowfall and conditions below freezing. But the valley isn’t nicknamed the ‘warm side of the Rockies’ for nothing, and the sun usually shines fairly frequently from December to March and temperatures often hover between just above freezing to about minus 10 degrees Celsius. Anything colder or cloudier than that and locals begin to grumble.

They’ve been grumbling almost continuously since late November. Thick clouds obscured the sky from then until mid-January. Then the polar vortex arriving, finally bringing a bit of sunshine, but sending the mercury on thermometers down to minus 30 degrees Celsius. Most residents sensibly dealt with the extreme cold, and before that with the greyer than normal skies, by hiding indoors.

But so far in February the sun has been out at least a bit more often, and temperatures for the most part have fallen into their normal winter range of a few degrees above freezing to minus 10 degrees Celsius. In other words, it’s been pleasant.

The improved conditions couldn’t come at a better time, with many valley residents feeling cooped up and pent up. And no surprise, since being active and getting outdoors can contribute positively to your mood and your well-being, according to local professionals who deal with mental health.

Blue Monday, the so-called most depressing day of the year, comes on the third Monday in January and gets plenty of media attention. That attention comes despite plenty of academics (and media reports) highlighting the fact that Blue Monday was quite literally made up by a travel company-funded psychologist report, with the not-so-hidden aim of convincing people to buy vacation trips. The academics and reports emphasize that the ‘science’ behind picking any one day as the most depressing of the year is sketchy at best.

That said, two Columbia Valley professional counsellors — Alana Cotterall and Sue Bradley, from Hearthstone Counselling and Consulting — and East Kootenay Addiction Service Society (EKASS) clinical team lead Dean Nicholson all told the Pioneer that they do see a rise in mental health concerns during winter months.

“There is an increase in depression and anxiety in the winter months, particularly January. This can be due to multiple factors, including post-holiday stress. After holidays, there can be triggers of grief and loss, complicated family dynamics, increased financial stressors and loneliness,” wrote Cotterall and Bradley.

Cotterall and Bradley say that seasonal depression impacts many people and is due to many factors. “When daylight savings time ends each fall, the shift backward reduces the amount of light exposure. There can then be a misalignment between the sleep-wake cycle, eating schedules and other daily routines. When our brain receives signals of limited daylight, it releases melatonin to support sleep, even when it’s not bedtime, so this can negatively affect the amount of energy we have and our brain’s ability to adapt to changing environments. For some people this can also cause moodiness, daytime sleepiness, and less appetite regulation, they wrote. “With more grey and cloudy days recently the low amounts of sunlight can also trigger a reduction in serotonin, which can affect mood. Physiologically we need the sunlight to get a lot of our energy, not just Vitamin D.”

When people stayed inside more during extreme cold snaps, such as the one created by the polar vortex, they detach from their normal activities, explained Cotterall and Bradley. In some cases “some people can go into ‘hibernation mode’ which increases depression. This can mean our bodies produce even less serotonin and more melatonin. So the neurotransmitter associated with happiness — serotonin — is decreased while the chemical associated with depression and sleepiness — melatonin — is increased.”

Nicholson had never heard of Blue Monday, but said that people’s mood does tend to shift during the winter months, although he cautioned that does not necessarily lead to clinical depression. He also noted that when winter leaves and spring arrives in full force in April and May, EKASS clients typically miss or cancel a noticeable number of appointments. “It makes sense, because the weather’s better, there’s more daylight hours and so people’s mood shifts,” he said. “So it probably holds up that when the weather is better, people feel better.”

That boost can be helpful for mental health, but Nicholson added that how this relates to addiction “is not straightforward. For some people, they are outside more, they are more active in the summer months, so they are drinking less, or they are smoking less. They are using substances less when the weather is nice. But for other people, they are out socializing more and so they are, say, having drinks at the golf course, or in the backyard while mowing the lawn. They are using substances more when the weather is nice. It really comes down to the individual’s relationship to substance use.”

Nicholson urged people to get outside and get moving when they can, especially in the winter. “We are lucky that we have so many ways to get outside in the East Kootenay. There are opportunities to ski, cross-country ski, skate, snowmobile, ice fish, snowshoe. But it doesn’t have to be skiing or skating or any of those things. I often feel better just getting out for a walk, even if it’s winter and the weather is bad.”

If you can’t get outside at all, Nicholson suggested trying a seasonal affective disorder (SAD) lamp – a light box-like device designed to simulate sunlight.

Cotterall and Bradley also suggested light therapy, noting it can be as simple as just getting some light shortly after awakening. “If possible, one hour of natural light during the early morning hours, preferably one hour after usual morning wake-up time when the circadian clock is most sensitive to light.” They also recommended improving sleep quality by avoiding stimulants such as coffee, tea or heavy meals close to bedtime; exercising during the day to increase serotonin production and support circadian regulation; sticking to your sleep schedule and self-care routines; and finding creative ways to stay connected.

“If the weather is a barrier, reach out to friends online and over the phone. Explore online groups and courses,” they wrote.

Cotterall and Bradley echoed Nicholson in pointing out that, in winter, there is such a wide variety of options to get outdoors that are accessible and affordable. “There are also multiple organized events that combine being outdoors, exercising and connecting with others, such as the ice fishing derby and the bonspiel,” they noted. “Regular access to green spaces has been linked to lower risks of depression and improved concentration and attention.”