T WIN FALLS — The holidays are behind us, the new year has begun, and now the Magic Valley is in its darkest, coldest season. It is easy to want to hunker down and hibernate this time of year, and for some, that can add up to a case of the winter blues.
Seasonal depression can take a toll on productivity at work, hamper personal relationships, and add stressors to already hectic lives. If you find yourself waking up on dark winter mornings feeling nervous or stressed out before the day has even begun, consider taking a cold shower.
Jaime Goffin is a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Twin Falls. As a therapist, she is always reading research about physical mechanisms that regulate emotion, one area of research that examines the role of the nervous system on seasonal depression. Goffin said that research shows that a cold shower in the morning can be as effective for mild depression or seasonal blues as taking an antidepressant.
“What that cold shower does is it regulates the vagus nerve,” Goffin said. “If you think about people waking up and already feeling unmotivated, or even, when people wake up they’re already experiencing anxiety.”
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The vagus nerve is one of the body’s central nerves, running from the base of the brain all the way down to the pelvis. The vagus nerve is associated with the heart, lungs and digestive tract, and some research shows that stimulating the vagus nerve is one way to achieve a sense of safety and well-being.
Another key way to keep the vagus nerve in a prime stimulated state is exercise, Goffin said.
“When our body moves it sends a message that we are OK,” Goffin said. “(One thing) I’m a huge believer in for getting through the winter is daily movement. And if you can get some of that outside when there’s a little bit of sunlight, even better.”
Like many therapists in the Magic Valley, Goffin sees an increase in clients seeking therapy during the winter months. While there is no substitute for therapy when facing mental health issues like depression, trauma or crisis, small changes to daily routines can help relieve some symptoms of mild seasonal depressions like the winter blues.
Goffin said part of coping with the mid-winter blues is becoming intentional about including some small lifestyle changes that can contribute to positive mood changes. Those small changes can be easy to do, and stack up to create a positive response to blue moods brought about by cold dreary days.
Starting the day with a bit of time outside around sunrise can help jump-start our bodies, Goffin said.
“Most people aren’t getting any light exposure at sunrise and also in the evening,” Goffin said. “Most people are waking up in the dark, so we’re naturally not getting some of that vitamin D sunlight.”
By getting outside around sunrise, the blue light stimulates the brain in ways that is hard to reproduce with artificial interior lighting of the home or workplace.
Another thing to watch for is whether or not you’re getting enough sleep.
“Sleep is probably our best medicine,” Goffin said. “If you look at mental health issues, people not having good sleep is probably the most common denominator.”
Goffin cautions that major depression and other serious mental health issues would benefit from more involved therapy.
Robin Bailly echoes the advice that staying active through the dark cold months can make a huge difference in seasonal depression.
“When people are more active, regardless of when it’s winter and the sun isn’t out, or when it’s nice out, if people get outside, it completely changes their mental health,” Bailly said. “Even if it’s cold outside, standing outside for three to 10 minutes is going to change your mood, regardless of whether the sun’s out or not.”
Bailly started as a counselor in 2012. In 2019, she started adding more energy work into her practice, using essential oils and guided meditation. Bailly has also begun using a Japanese energy therapy called reiki to complement other therapeutic techniques at her private practice Of The Earth, which she conducts at Float Magic.
The theory behind reiki is that energy in the body can become stuck. Reiki is a way to help move that energy out of the body.
“The biggest thing people experience is complete relaxation,” Bailly said. “And when we’re relaxed, there’s less stress. When there’s less stress there’s less pain, when we have less pain our body is able to heal better, when we’re not experiencing emotional pain we’re not depressed, we’re not anxious, we’re not feeling helpless or hopeless, and that’s why reiki helps with that. Because it’s moving that energy in the body.”
Reiki is starting to be seen in hospital settings more and more. The Washington Post reports more than 60 U.S. hospitals have adopted Reiki as part of patient services, according to a UCLA study, and Reiki education is offered at 800 hospitals. According to Bailly, reiki in hospitals is used more because it helps with pain. They are also using it in palliative care, cancer care and after surgeries because it has been shown to help the healing process.
“I’m not saying reiki is going to cure your depression,” Bailly said. “It’s complimentary, meaning, it’s going to help that energy move, so that then you can deal with the emotions that arise that create the depression.”
Meditation is another way people seek to balance thoughts and emotions to supplement a balanced lifestyle. Most people have heard of meditation, but for some who have the impression that it requires a totally quiet mind, the idea can be daunting.
In a recent Facebook post, the South Central Public Health District highlighted visual meditation as an accessible way for people to approach the practice. The post linked to a free course from the Carnegie Museum of Art, using artworks as s basis for visual meditation.
Health district spokesperson Brianna Bodily said that little easy steps toward something like meditation can make the practice seem less daunting.
“Often when you’re facing a mental health struggle, sometimes just getting started on some of those coping mechanisms can be the hardest part,” Bodily said. “When you think about some of the things that can be extremely helpful — like meditation, exercise, eating healthy — it can feel extremely overwhelming. So understanding there are simple tiny steps you can take that can help you get to that point where its more of a habit, something that isn’t quite as overwhelming or scary, that can help you take those initial steps to take to get to a better mental space.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health crisis, the Idaho suicide prevention hotline can be reached by phone at 800-273-8255 or text 208-398-4357.
Twin Falls has a 24-hour crisis center for individuals who might harm themselves. There are trained professionals who can help keep individuals in mental health crisis safe for 24 hours while helping to connect them to further treatment.