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How to cope when winter blues are something more

By Katie Demeria

With the holiday season winding to a close and winter weather making itself known in the area, some may find themselves facing seasonal depression. But learning the right coping strategies ahead of time could prevent the condition from worsening.

Though sometimes used as interchangeable terms, seasonal affective disorder and holiday depression are different types of depression affecting many throughout the winter. They differ largely in their underlying causes.

Seasonal affective disorder strikes individuals at a certain time of year, usually in the winter, according to Dr. Elizabeth Trefzgermof Northwestern Community Services in Front Royal.

In contrast, holiday depression is usually directly triggered from either the hectic pace of the holiday season or the immense letdown after it is over.

Trefzger said she sees many patients who are attempting to deal with both.

"They're very common problems, more common than people may think," she said.

Seasonal affective disorder is sometimes a sign that an underlying depression has worsened, Trefzger said. It is important to take it seriously, rather than dismissing the symptoms as "winter blues."

"A lot of times, people suffer from the disorder because in the winter months they can't stick to their normal routines," Trefzger said.

Since many people are confined to their homes, Trefzger said, they have fewer opportunities to go be social and active. That isolation can trigger the disorder.

"People with seasonal affective disorder could be lethargic, see a change in appetite, sleep too much, or experience a loss of interest in activities," she said.

Staying active, Trefzger said, is an important way to try and fight the disorder.

"If, of course, you can get the patient to do it," she said. "For some of my patients, it's not just seasonal affective disorder they're dealing with. But if they can find the energy to get moving, it creates good chemicals in their brains that help reduce anxiety and turn metabolism up."

Exercise, Trefzger continued, has a snowball effect. It increase energy, makes sleep easier and increases motivation.

For many, the disorder sets in because they have a particular coping strategy that they enjoy in order to offset depressive behavior. When those strategies are tied to the warm weather, like some sort of outdoor sport, it becomes difficult to combat the depression.

"I tell my patients they need to compensate for what they do in the warmer months," Trefzger said. "If you love to garden, try to do a little indoor gardening. Or experiment with some other indoor form of your favorite outdoor activity.

"I like to encourage people to plan ahead and have something to look forward to every month, some kind of social event. It's harder in January, February and March, but those are the months when you really need to work on it."

While there are ways in which individuals can attempt to fight the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder on their own, if the disorder progresses a great deal they may need to see a health professional.

"If the symptoms last more than two weeks, you're having any thoughts of self-harm, or you're not sleeping or eating, go talk to your primary care physician, a psychiatrist, or even a friend with some experience," Trefzger said. "Let them help you decide if there is more going on here than seasonal affective disorder."

Sometimes the identified causes will lead to coping strategies that are available to individuals throughout the year, she added. If no other cause is found, clinicians and mental health providers can help develop another way to combat the depression.

Holiday depression differs from seasonal defective disorder in that the depression's cause is usually directly related to the holiday season, Trefzger said.

"The holidays are really stressful, for everybody, for different reasons," she said. "There are a lot of expectations, sometimes unrealistic goals, changes in routines, a hectic pace, and for some people more pronounced feelings of isolation or disappointment based on those things."

Holiday depression is also oftentimes seen after the holiday season, when that hectic pace suddenly ends.

Planning traditions for the weeks after the holidays, Trefzger said, is a good way of balancing the excitement of November and December with January and February's slower paces.

Trefzger said some forms of depression cannot be handled solely by the individual, but may require intervention through, for example, medication. But, in order to help prevent that type of treatment, individuals should always remember to take care of themselves.

"I always like to try to tell people to have a little bit of structure in their lives, on a weekly basis," she said. "Try to do something special for yourself, something special for our mind, and something special for your body. It could help a lot."

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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