It doesn't seem right that our special days of the year, steeped in traditions of love and giving and redemption, should make us feel anything but happy and grateful. The truth is, for many of us, holidays can be a tough sled, if you'll pardon the pun. And, right now we're in the midst of the big ones.

Let's talk about holiday depression. There are not a lot of hard facts about how many people are affected by the holiday blues but according to the National Center for Health Statistics, there is a 15 percent increase in the number of individuals seeking help for emotional disorders during the month of December. Holiday depression can be caused by a number of factors, including unrealistic expectations, financial pressures and over commitments that typically bring on stress at holiday time. For those with no friends, family or support system, the holidays can bring about profound feelings of alienation and sadness.

Certain people may feel depressed around the winter holidays due to seasonal affective disorder, sometimes referred to as seasonal depression. Shorter days, less sunlight and colder temperatures have many of us eating and sleeping more in wintertime. Even animals react to the changing seasons in their moods and behaviors. For some, reactions to this stress are severe enough to disrupt their lives.

The incidence of seasonal affective disorder increases the farther away you live from the equator. Seasonal affective disorder is about four times more common in women than men and while the average age when people experience this illness is 23, it can develop at any age. SAD appears to be less common in areas where snow is often on the ground, so there may truly be some magic in a "white Christmas." Regular exposure to bright light (phototherapy), particularly fluorescent lighting, significantly improves depression in people with SAD during the months of decreased sunlight.

Other forms of holiday depression may require a bit more action. Poorly managed holiday stress can result in headaches, insomnia and excessive eating and drinking. As you experience symptoms of holiday sadness or anxiety, it is important to recognize the signs of symptoms and behaviors that are interfering with your normal relationships. If the following ring true for you around the holidays, it may be time to see your primary care physician:

• Anger and pessimism about the holiday season • Routinely avoiding social interaction • Excessive alcohol and drug use • Shunning work and social events • Excessive sleeping.

Additionally, you might want to try these ideas to help get you through the season, with your holiday spirit intact:

• Be realistic about your expectations for the holiday season and set reasonable goals. • Be honest with yourself. Don't take on more responsibilities than you can handle. • Pace yourself. Allow the holiday cheer to be spread from one holiday event to the next. • Live "in the moment" and enjoy the present. • Volunteer some time to help others. Happiness and fulfillment comes with a balance between self-interest and caring for others. • Look for inexpensive or free holiday activities such as viewing area holiday decorations, civic celebrations or window shopping (without buying). • Limit your consumption of alcohol, as this can intensify depression. • Make a new tradition. Celebrate the holidays in a different way. • Make priority lists, delegate and let others share in holiday tasks. • Don't spend too much. Extra bills without the budget to pay them can further the stress and depression well into the next year. • Do spend time with positive, caring people. • Exercise - regular exercise (even walking) has been proven to reduce stress, improve sleep and ward off depression.

National Institute of Mental Health believes about 80 percent of those with depression can minimize or eliminate it by learning and practicing antidepressant strategies. I hope you'll make the effort to give yourself a special gift for whatever holiday you celebrate—the gift of joy and some personal peace this season.

Dr. Linda McCormick, D.O., is with Family Medical Care Associates PC in Blue Springs and can be reached at 816-228-1000.