Portage counselor: How to cope with crippling winter

January 31, 2019

The record-breaking cold can take a toll on both the body and the spirit.

But there are ways to cope until things warm up, a Portage mental health professional says.

Staying as active as possible, staying in contact with people and seeking out “uplifting” entertainment – these are just some of the coping measures suggested by Barry Erath, director of Aspen Family Counseling in Portage.

“This is an excellent time to read a good book or make a special meal,” Erath said. “Or be creative. Make art.”

With wind chills in the minus-50-degree range at midday Wednesday in Columbia County, many places – including some businesses, Portage schools and the Portage Public Library – were closed, for the safety of patrons and employees.

But Portage Theatres was open Wednesday, offering one venue for people who might have wanted to seek a cure for cabin fever.

Maintaining contact with other people is a key way to hold onto psychological health during dangerous weather situations, Erath said.

But staying glued to social media, whether by phone or computer screen, may not be the best way to cope, he said.

“There are several recent studies that say you shouldn’t spend more than an hour to an hour and a half on social media,” Erath said – especially if your social media presence includes activities that don’t involve authentic conversation with people you know.

Winter-related mental health challenges have long been known, according to the University of Wisconsin Health page “Coping with the Winter Blues” (uwhealth.org).

Despite the vivid sunshine Wednesday, this is the time of the year when many people experience a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder, UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain writes on the website.

Some of the symptoms include:

Feelings of sadness that can endure for two or more weeks.Fatigue.Problems with concentration.Weight gain.Sleep problems.Feelings of helplessness or sluggishness.

Anyone who experiences such symptoms for an extended period of time, or to such a degree that they significantly interfere with life, should seek help from a health care professional, Mirgain said.

In many cases, however, something as simple as physical activity can make a great difference.

That’s a special challenge during the current once-in-a-generation cold snap, Erath said, because officials are recommending strongly against letting children play outdoors, due to the danger of experiencing frostbite within minutes of exposure.

And, because schools are closed, youngsters may not have access to places like gymnasiums where vigorous indoor play is possible, he said.

Erath said he recommends exercise for people of all ages – but not too much exertion. Working too hard at weather-related chores like shoveling snow can actually exacerbate sadness or struggles stemming from weather conditions.

While outdoor activity is, generally speaking, more beneficial than indoor activity, anything that gets a person moving can help with coping, he said.

And although watching a movie (in a theater or at home) is usually more of a passive activity than physical exercise, that can help, too, he said – as long as the choice of entertainment is “uplifting” and preferably not violent or aggressive.

Erath noted, too, that Aspen Family Counseling has a 22-year history of staying open in all weather conditions, because people need their services – not only to talk (though he said hasn’t seen an uptick in this during the cold spell), but also to keep current on prescriptions.

“If we can possibly stay open, we have to stay open,” he said.

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