It is not uncommon for people to feel a little blue this time of year.  The days are short and cold.  And for many the holiday season is stressful rather than joyous.  But for some folks, this season ushers in something more serious than the winter blues: seasonal affective disorder or SAD, is a form of depression that can vary from mild to debilitating over the winter months.  

As many as 20 percent of Americans are affected by SAD each year. The most common symptoms of SAD are similar for those of general depression: feelings of sadness and hopelessness and a loss of interest in activities that you used to enjoy. The difference is that with general depression, you feel this way every day of the year, whereas sufferers of SAD only feel this depressed during the fall and winter months.  

Other indicators of SAD include sleeping more than usual, anger, irritability, decreased concentration, loss of interest in sex, and impaired memory. SAD sufferers are also more prone to sleep disturbances during the winter months. So they sleep more, but are generally less rested than ever before. 

As it only rolls around for a few months out of the year, many people discount their symptoms or try to brush them off as the "winter blues." But even if it only hits in the winter, SAD can feel debilitating and is just as serious as depression that lasts all year long.

Fortunately, there are a number of tools you can use to combat the symptoms of SAD.  First and foremost, you should talk to your health care provider or counselor to give them a heads up about your condition and listen to their recommendations for treatment.  Here are a few methods they might suggest:

Light therapy. Light therapy is typically the first line of treatment for sufferers of SAD.  Light boxes come in a wide range of sizes and prices, so ask your health care provider for a recommendation on which one might be best for you.  When using this treatment, you will sit a few feet away from the light box with the light directed at your face.  Light therapy mimics outdoor light and can help to kick start changes in brain chemicals linked to mood.

Bring natural light in. One trick to alleviating the symptoms of SAD is to get as much exposure to light as you can.  Light therapy will certainly help, as will doing everything you can to bring natural light into your home.  Open your curtains, trim tree branches that may block sunlight, and sit as close as you can to bright sunny windows while you are at work or relaxing at home.

Get outside. An even better way to take in some natural light is to get out in it.  Bundle up and take a walk, eat lunch in your local park, or just sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even if it's cold and cloudy outside, the natural light can help boost your mood.

Exercise.  Regular exercise helps to relieve stress and anxiety, and that's particularly important for those who suffer from seasonal depression.  Commit to getting a little bit of exercise every day - a walk, a bike ride, or a swim at your local gym to help lift your mood and improve your overall health.

Eat well. When you are depressed you are drawn to comfort foods like bread, pasta, and ice cream that might make you feel better for a moment but leave you feeling blah and bloated for the rest of the day.  Try to stick to a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables to ensure that you get all of the vitamins and minerals you need each day.

Reach out.  Don't forget to reach out to friends and family members during this time.  You do not have to endure the symptoms of SAD alone.  Let them know what you're dealing with and how they can help.

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