Toussaint column: Feeling down? Get out in the sun
May 9, 2017
"Send me kitty pictures. I'm seriously bummed by the news."
I received that plea from a Facebook pal, and while I'm happy to post pet photos, I also find myself frequently giving advice to friends battling the blues. In brief, it is:
• Go outside and get some sun.
• Go exercise.
• Meet a friend.
• Plan something to look forward to.
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• Avoid alcohol.
Those suggestions aren't from me, they're medical advice from a Ph.D. psychotherapist at Kaiser-Permanente. I'll call him "Doc."
While living in San Francisco in my 40s, I suffered a major depression — one that felt like a 50-pound weight lodged on my chest, one that dimmed the lights and caused me to cry at the slightest provocation. I had a similar depressive bout as a teen.
When I finally sought help at Kaiser, I was advised to join a work-stress group, begin anti-depression meds and take a six-month class in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Doc taught the CBT course. Having suffered himself, he humorously observed that, as a teenager, he'd unwittingly hit on the perfect recipe for creating depression: He'd lock himself in his bedroom, pull down the shades, drink beer, avoid everyone and listen to Leonard Cohen records. (With recent controversy over the Netflix show "13 Reasons," which is about bullying and suicide, it's important to note that suicide is the third leading cause of death among those 10-14 and second among those 15-34.)
CBT is based on the principle that thoughts impact our feelings and actions. External events — jobs, relationships, politics, the news — are stressors and do play an important role. But we can moderate our responses to them by changing the way we think and care for ourselves. As Doc explained, emotions, physical health and social well-being form a triangle; our thoughts influence all three sides. Push on any side and it reshapes the whole triangle.
CBT worked amazingly well for me. I now rarely think about suicide (that, along with constant feelings of sorrow or emptiness, and losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, are common depression symptoms). I'm now mostly upbeat, despite living in one of the eight intermountain states sometimes called "the Suicide Belt."
A couple of summers ago, while working at Eagle Crest Nursery, I was approached by an elderly couple wanting to return a carload of annuals. They apologetically explained that while there was nothing wrong with the plants, their daughter, who lived in Aspen and had purchased the annuals, had committed suicide. Stunned, I did all I could to help.
Aspen's suicide rate is roughly three times the national average. As noted in a 2014 series on suicide published by the Post Independent, mountain resort communities often have a party lifestyle. "Many move here for that lifestyle with dreams of being a ski bum and living life as if it's a permanent vacation," the article explained. While many "move here to get away from problems they faced elsewhere," that never happens. We all carry our issues along with us wherever we go.
High-altitude living may cause additional problems. As reported in LiveScience online, researchers at the University of Utah and Tufts University found that when exposed to high-elevation conditions, female rats exhibited more depression-like behavior. Dr. Perry F. Renshaw, the study's lead author, noted that greater high-altitude suicide rates stemmed from multiple factors including "poverty, rural residence, low-population density, gun ownership and psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disease."
Since suicide rates are higher among young people, a youthful population also plays a role.
If you're feeling seriously depressed, our area does have good sources of support: The Aspen Hope Center reaches out to residents both in Aspen and beyond. Mind Springs Health has locations in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Rifle. Colorado Crisis Services is always available toll-free at 1-844-493-TALK (8255).
If you're feeling down but not at the professional-help stage, my offhand-but-clinically-proven advice still stands: Turn off the TV. Put away the smartphone. Get off of social media. Take a hike in the sunshine, preferably with a friend. The reason: Clinical studies have found that regular exercise can be as effective as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the antidepressants most prescribed for depression.
And kick it up a notch from kitten photos.
Contact with pets lowers blood pressure and can reduce depression. So take your dog for a walk. Or take your neighbor's dog for a walk. Or volunteer at the local animal shelter. You can probably even post kitty photos for them. Litters of kittens were being born in Colorado around mid-March, and very soon, local shelters will be filled with hundreds of furry anti-depressants.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. This is the first of her columns that will appear on the second Wednesday of the month.