Giving Thought: As winter approaches, mind your mental health

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Every year around this time we begin shifting toward winter — pulling out the puffy parkas and boots, stacking firewood, raking leaves and generally preparing for cold temperatures and long nights.

And while many of us anticipate the fun of skiing and the quiet beauty of winter, there’s also discomfort associated with the cold months. We all feel that weight in our own ways, and “seasonal affective disorder” even triggers clinical depression in some. Even in the best of times, winter for some people means sleeping too much, overeating and avoiding activity, so mental health professionals are already expecting to field some of those phone calls.

Of course, this is not just another winter. Coronavirus cases are spiking nationwide, many of us have been isolated for months, and we’ve just endured one of the most divisive and tense election seasons in recent memory. If winter generally tends to trigger depressive behavior, then winter 2020 seems poised to serve an especially lethal cocktail.

“In any winter we’ve got to work a little harder to maintain our mental health,” said Jackie Skramstad, clinical operations manager at Mindsprings Health in Glenwood Springs. “It’s compounded this year with the additional stress from the pandemic. One of the things we usually do at this time of year is move that social stuff indoors, and that’s challenging with COVID.”

Nowadays, even the simple act of grocery shopping can make us uncomfortable. Bypassing too many unmasked people on the street can be irritating. It’s just a tense, fraught time. Add to that the fact that we don’t see most of our friends or family members these days except on a glowing screen, and we might not get any closer at Thanksgiving or Christmas.

“We need to take care of ourselves and embrace the cold and darkness,” Skramstad said.

There are various ways to do this. One of the most obvious, at least in this Rocky Mountain playground, is to bundle up in your winter clothes and get outside, especially on those relatively warm, bluebird days. And if you can bring a friend or family member along, whether it’s a walk around the block or a daylong march up a snowy peak, then all the better.

“If we can couple being outside with some social connection — fresh air, sunlight, social interaction — that’s really important,” Skramstad said.

There also are ways to brighten up your home and enhance the hours when you’re alone. Hang some Christmas lights, get out the blankets, read a book or magazine with a cup of hot tea. These kinds of activities embody the Danish notion of “hygge,” pronounced hue-guh, which refers to something cozy, comfortable, warm and welcoming.

“This is the time to prepare those heavy, warm stews, to light candles and fires,” Skramstad continued. “Light up your indoor space. Why not?”

These may seem like simple, common-sense tips, but this sort of self-care is doubly important when we’re encountering stress and tension seemingly wherever we turn. It’s also important to look out for our loved ones and others around us who may not be coping as well as we are. Ask them how they’re doing. Encourage them to talk and share their feelings.

“If you don’t really like to go out on long walks, then go get a neighbor and just walk around the block,” Skramstad said. “Get creative about that face-to-face connection.”

Finally, don’t forget what we’ve learned through this pandemic. You may be sick and tired of Zoom and FaceTime, but those technological tools are better than nothing. Use them to keep in touch with family members and friends and make some plans for the warm months of 2021. It’s always nice to have something to look forward to.

If you’re feeling bold, propose a Zoom chat with a long-lost friend. Chances are they’re feeling caged-in too and will be happy to hear from you. What have you got to lose?

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.


Foodstuff: What are you doing for New Year’s Eve?

It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.

See more