By Senior Airman Curt Beach
673d Air Base Wing
While the Chugach peaks are cloaked in white and days more swiftly fade to black, moods more often become blue.
With the two darkest months of the year approaching, low energy or depressed moods also known as “wintertime blues,” becomes more likely for residents of Anchorage and the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson community.
Wintertime blues is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. It typically begins and ends around the same time every year. For most people, symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping energy and making people feel moody.
“People living at higher latitudes are more likely to see a decrease in energy and mood during darker months,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Laura Nichols, 673d Medical Operations Squadron director of psychological health. “Many other factors can influence depressed moods as well, such as heredity, ways of thinking developed over the years, situational stressors and increased alcohol use. All of these things can contribute to a lower mood and make us more prone to an episode of depression.”
Symptoms can include but are not limited to irritability, fatigue, social withdrawal, oversleeping, weight gain with increased appetite, and feelings of hopelessness.
During the winter months, new arrivals to JBER can be more susceptible to depressed moods or low energy than those already residing here.
According to Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Norman Rosenthal at Georgetown University Medical School, someone may have mild winter blues while living in a warmer, southern climate and develop full-blown seasonal affective disorder by moving north.
According to Chapters Health System, seasonal depressed moods occur in an estimated 10 million Americans with about 10 to 20 percent being classified as mild. It is more common in people between the ages of 18 and 30 and is about four times more common in women than in men. Severity can influence quality of life up to the point of requiring hospitalization.
Lifestyle changes can help manage symptoms – getting adequate sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising often, participating in activities that make the person happy and talking with a trustworthy friend or mental health professional.
For others who battle depressed moods or low energy, light therapy is often a course of treatment.
With light therapy, a special lamp is used to mimic sunlight.
It is most effective to begin therapy before symptoms develop.
Nichols said one of the most effective approaches to lowering vulnerability is to reduce the temptation of indoor isolation by acquiring clothes appropriate for the colder temperatures.
“Next, know yourself,” Nichols said. “Incorporate activities in your daily life that give you a sense of mastery or accomplishment, as well as activities that give you pleasure. Scientists have found people with clinical depression often do not have enough of these activities in their lives. When we talk about activities that give pleasure, the best types of pleasure activities are in line with your values and contribute to your or others' lives in some way. Activities that sabotage your goals, like playing videogames for hours on end when you would really like to be getting in better shape or making more local friends, are not all that helpful for mood in the long run.”
Additionally, taking an active look into your health and nutrition can contribute to an overall feeling of wellness. Working out three to five times per week, doing cardiovascular exercise and weight training also tend to positively affect moods.
Face-to-face social connection is also very important for mood, Nichols said.
“Find people who enjoy the same activities or have the same values you do,” she said. “There are many options for that on base and in the community. When we interact with people face to face, we participate in giving and receiving the full continuum of human communication.
“Often we might feel like we are being social all the time online, but text, emails, and messaging in writing leave a lot to be misunderstand, and can sometimes leave people feeling lonely, angry or anxious. Face-to-face social connection in new places takes practice and may feel like hard work, but the more it is avoided, the harder it can be to get back out there again and try to be social.”
JBER has many community services and activities for people to try, enjoy, and use to connect with others. The JBER Life website at https://jberlife.com/ details local recreation activities and classes. The Outdoor Recreation Center also has many winter sport items for rent, in addition to classes and tours.
Nichols said another avenue that can help with your wellness is finding a faith community by reaching out to the JBER Religious Operations Center at 552-JROC.
“If your faith doesn't have a service on base, chaplains will help you find your faith community in the area,” she said. “Volunteer in the community. There are many non-profit services in the area that love to have volunteers, and it's harder to feel bad about yourself when you've been helping others.”
Nichols recommends if someone finds themselves feeling down during the winter and unable to shake it, pursue the many different counseling services available, such as Military One Source, Military and Family Life Consultants, Behavioral Health Optimization in Primary Care, Task Force True North embedded in some Air Force units, or the Mental Health Clinic.
“The treatments for depression tend to be cognitive behavioral therapy, which includes behavioral changes, and sometimes also medication,” Nichols said. “During dark winter months, some people find ‘Happy Lights’ to be as effective as medication for their mood. The studies that found this had participants using lights that were 10,000 lux brightness, daily for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning for several weeks or months.
“There are so many opportunities here for mastery and pleasure activities, we just have to step out and try them. There are also so many helping professionals just waiting to be able to help you,” Nichols said.