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Find balance during the holidays

As cold weather arrives and the rush of the holiday season picks up, many people might find themselves feeling a little “down in the dumps.”

This season can be as exciting as it is stressful — everything seems to happen at once. The countdown to Christmas seems infinitely faster as the weeks roll on. Gift-buying in itself is a monumental task. The days are literally shorter and it becomes difficult to find time for everything that must be done. As the year winds to a close, we are also faced with fewer opportunities to enjoy mother nature or even take in a little sunshine.

All this and more can lead to what many refer to as the “winter blues,” but studies show that there is science behind feeling down during the winter months.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that recurs regularly at certain times of the year, usually beginning in late fall or winter and lasting into spring.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, the reported incidence of SAD in the general population is four to 10 percent, but some studies suggest up to 20 percent of people in the U.S. may be affected by a mild form of the disorder.

“The symptoms of SAD include depressed mood, loss of energy, increased sleep, anxiety, irritability and difficulty concentrating. Many also experience a change in appetite, particularly a craving for carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain. Some people report a heavy feeling in their arms and legs,” according to NAMI.

For some, it’s a simple lack of sunshine or physical activity. For others, SAD is triggered by mourning the loss of loved ones who will not be around to enjoy the forthcoming holidays. Often, the stress of the holiday — whether financial or just a giant to-do list — can make it hard to enjoy.

If we think about it, many of us can probably pinpoint a shift in our outlook and attitudes as winter sets in. While some experience an uptick in holiday cheer, this time of year can be miserable for others.

Here are some tips to cope with SAD from Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

— Keep your expectations modest. Don’t get hung up on what the holidays are supposed to be like and how you’re supposed to feel. Comparing your holiday to some abstract greeting-card ideal will make it come up short. Don’t worry about holiday spirit, take things as they come.

— Do something different. If the prospect of your usual routine fills you with dread rather than holiday joy, don’t surrender to it. Instead, spend Christmas day at the movie theater, or enjoy some other unique experience.

— Lean on your support system if you are depressed. Keep in touch by phone if they live far away or visit frequently if they are closer.

— Forget the unimportant stuff. Don’t run yourself ragged just to live up to holiday tradition. So what if you don’t get the lights on the roof this year? Or you don’t get the holiday mugs from the crawl space? Give yourself a break. Worrying about such trivial stuff will not add to your holiday spirit.

— Volunteer. Considering taking time to help people who have less than you. Donate time to a soup kitchen or to helping needy families.

— Head off problems. Think about what people or situations trigger holiday stress and figure out ways to avoid them.

Instead of staying in your bleak, childhood bedroom at your stepfather’s house, check into a nearby hotel. Take control of the situation.

— Make new family traditions. People often feel compelled to keep family holiday traditions alive long past the point that anyone’s actually enjoying them. Don’t keep them going if they no longer give you joy. Start something new, a tradition that is more meaningful to you personally.

— Don’t overbook. The holidays last for weeks, so pace yourself and don’t say yes to every invitation that comes your way. Pick the parties you will attend by how well you’ll fit in, and which ones you really want to be at. Once you get there, don’t stay longer than you want to: make an exit plan.

— Forget about the perfect gift. If you’re already feeling overwhelmed, now is not the time to fret about finding the “best absolute gift ever” for your family and friends.

— Stick to a budget. The cost of holiday shopping mounts quickly and can make you feel anxious and out of control.

— Stay on schedule. As much as you possibly can, try to stick with your normal routine during the holidays. Don’t stay too late at parties. Don’t pull an all-nighter wrapping presents. Disrupting your schedule and losing out on sleep can make your mood deteriorate.

— Exercise. While you may not feel like you have the time to exercise, the benefits are worth it. Exercise has a strong anti-anxiety, anti-depression effect, so work physical activity into your errands.

— Don’t rely on holiday spirits. Although the season is a time of heavy drinking, alcohol is a depressant and abusing it will leave you feeling worse.

— Give yourself a break. The holidays can make people dwell on their shortcomings, but you should cut yourself some slack during what should be the season of kindness and forgiveness.