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Winter 'blues' due to lack of sunlight
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'Tis the season to be jolly, but for millions of Americans winter is not a happy time due to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Although SAD is not uncommon, the reported cases do not support the urban myth that there are more instances of depression and suicide during the holidays than any other time of the year. Regarding suicide attempts, research indicates that there is the same amount, and some studies even show a slight decrease, near the end of a year.

"Seasonal Affective Disorder is an interesting thing that has been studied quite a bit. As days get shorter and there is less light, people tend to be inside more. SAD generally affects some people more than others but all feel it a little bit and genetically, some people are more predisposed to it than others. It is not a clinical depression. It really has to do with a lack of light," said Richard Williams, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Workplace Wellness in Modesto.

Lack of light accounts for the higher incidence rate of SAD in countries that are in the northern geographic regions.

"I certainly think it does affect people here but mildly. SAD affects people everywhere except in the tropics. Even if you don't suffer from SAD, you probably still prefer spring and summer over winter. People feel cramped, like they can't get out to do the things they want, in the winter," Williams said.

External stressors associated with the holidays, such as event planning or last-minute shopping, may also be affixed to the environmental cues that trigger SAD but are often offset by the gathering opportunities, socialization and support of family and friends that are more prevalent around days like Christmas and New Year's Eve than other times of year, according to Williams.

Aside from feeling stressed, the primary symptoms of SAD include sleep and eating differences (too much or not enough), general irritability, hopelessness and feeling down for no reason which is why being diagnosed is helpful in avoiding anxiety, or feelings of concern or fright about "feeling different."

"Just to be assessed and treated eases your mind. Information is helpful. SAD is a fairly common disorder that affects millions of people. Sometimes people know what is causing their disturbances and sometimes they don't know, but information about those things and how to deal with SAD is easy to find with so much access to computers. The information is out there," Williams said.

Recommendations to fight SAD

Williams recommends making an appointment with a physician for those who suspect that they may have SAD to rule out any physical ailments or physiological disorders as causes for feeling down. Because it is important to identify the environment as the source of a patient's "depression" so that the person receives proper treatment, if a patient approaches a counselor with their initial observations, it is likely that the counselor will point the person to their physician.

For those with insurance, Williams advises that they go to a mental health professional and get authorization but to still start with a physician because if a psychotherapist is necessary, a physician will make a referral.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health recommends medicines, changes in diet, learning to manage stress and going to a sunny climate during the cold months as treatments for SAD.

"Getting outside and walking even when it's not as nice outside helps because you are not as constrained. Some people put lights on themselves as light therapy. Some are prescribed low dose antidepressants but physical exercise helps a lot. Again, even if it's overcast, misty or rainy outside. Talking to a counselor is another form of treatment especially for people who are more isolated," Williams said.

"Eating and sleeping right are also part of the basics to overcome SAD."