UNM campus covered in a layer of snow
By El Gibson

Seasonal Depression

UNM Psychiatric Clinicians Discuss Risks and Coping Mechanisms Associated with Wintertime Behavioral Health Challenges

Even in New Mexico, where residents can bask in 310 days of sunshine, many people still find that they aren’t immune to feeling the winter blues.

Often beginning in the fall and lingering throughout the winter months, the winter blues are mild feelings of lethargy and sadness during the colder, darker days of season.

“Sometimes people might think of seasonal depression only happens in places like Seattle or the Northeast or somewhere where the weather is different,” said Kristina Sowar, MD, attending child and adolescent psychiatrist at The University of New Mexico Children’s Psychiatric Center and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences in the UNM School of Medicine. “But we definitely see it here too.”

A smaller group will experience more severe symptoms, which can permeate all aspects of life and impact functionality – from work to personal relationships. This is known as seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression.

Chelsea Spraberry, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the UNM Medical Group Behavioral Health Clinic, said some symptoms include feeling depressed most of the day, having low energy, losing interest in activities, unexplained aches and pains, problems sleeping, changes in appetite and more.


When seasonal depression starts affecting your life and your ability to function as a human being, that’s a warning sign that something is going on and you may need some extra help
Chelsea Spraberry, PsyD

“When seasonal depression starts affecting your life and your ability to function as a human being, that’s a warning sign that something is going on and you may need some extra help,” she said.

Reduced sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt the body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.

Sowar added that while there are several steps people can take to improve their mood during the winter months – like reaching out to family and friends, exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and being mindful – getting sunlight is one of the easiest and most helpful coping mechanisms.

“As the days get shorter, people who work in offices all day and then come home when it’s dark – it can almost feel claustrophobic for them,” she said. “It’s important to make sure that you’re getting outside or even near a window during the day.”

Sticking to a good sleep schedule is also important, she said.

“Some people tend to want to sleep more, which biologically makes sense – when it’s dark, our bodies want more sleep,” she said. “But that can cause an impact to other things people need to be doing.”

Wintertime may also lead some to engage in unhealthy habits such as substance use, as studies suggest there may be a seasonal factor in drug overdoses.

On top of the depression and poor mental outlooks that seem to get worse during cold temperatures and gray days, for many, life becomes more difficult and the urge to use drugs or alcohol becomes that much more pressing.

“The holidays aren’t happy for everyone,” Spraberry said. “Some people are already isolated and don’t have that support around the holidays, so they have a harder time. Sometimes they’ll turn to substances to cope with whatever difficult emotions are coming up.”

That’s why, Spraberry said, it’s important to check on friends and neighbors who are at risk of being isolated in the winter.

Some signs of depression to look for in other people include isolation, withdrawing from hobbies and activities and irritability.

“If you have the capacity, it’s a good idea to check on people you have relationships with,” Spraberry said. “Even saying hi to someone could make their day.”

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