The holiday season is a time of joy, happiness and celebration for most of us. Yet many people find depression a more common feeling than joy during this season. At first glance that may seem confusing, but there are a number of reasons why the holiday season can affect people in a negative way:

• Unrealistic expectations The media and the barrage of advertising during this season give most of us an “ideal” image of what the holidays are “supposed” to be. Comparing our own lives to that Hollywood and advertising perfection, we may feel inadequate, left out, or as if we simply aren’t getting our due.

• Poor diets Candies, cakes, alcohol, and rich, high-calorie foods – it’s all part of festive holiday eating and another cause of holiday depression. Adults are affected by “sugar highs” the same as kids. Then add in worries about gaining weight, or feeling guilty or being deprived because of what we do or don’t eat, and you have more things contributing to that depressed feeling.

• Lack of exercise Who has time for shopping, parties and still getting in some regular exercise? So we skip exercising, one of the best ways to feel better, both physically and mentally.

• Social withdrawal Many people become less socially active under the pressure of the holidays and a growing sense of depression. It takes energy to go, so instead we choose to stay home, and then feel bored, sad and depressed about our self-imposed isolation.

How to change all this? Start by changing how you view holiday depression. Rather than seeing it as a “problem,” look at it as a “project”– something you can work at. Problems require solutions. But projects can be approached in small steps, with any progress making you feel better.

Begin your project with a more realistic view of the holiday season. Recognize that our images of the season come from retailers who make money from us feeling happy and joyful about buying things and giving gifts.

But that doesn’t mean we’re “inadequate” because our own lives don’t match up to the idealized, perfect holiday scenes we see in those ads. Such ad images aren’t real people or real life – why compare your own life to that fictionalized perfection?

Another easy step in the process of feeling better about the holidays is choosing a healthier diet. That doesn’t mean avoiding all the special treats and old favorites of this time of the year, just using common sense and moderation. Have a little of the really special things, rather than a whole lot of everything. When you know you’re facing a tempting party menu, balance it with healthier foods and smaller portions the rest of the day. Keep alcohol consumption under control.

You’ll also find exercise, even in moderate amounts, will do wonders for your mental and emotional state during this time of the year. If you’ve been exercising regularly, don’t stop for the holidays. If you aren’t now exercising, what better time is there to start? Even a simple daily walk can make you feel fitter and healthier, and is another bit of progress toward your project of overcoming the holiday blues.

It’s also important to make an effort to attend some social functions. If you must, arrive late and leave early, but make the effort to go. When there, talk to people, and not about feeling sad about the season. Try acting as if you feel better about things than you really do – you may just find it’s true.

Lastly, don’t just sit around and brood about feeling depressed. If you start feeling low, call a friend or go meet someone for coffee. Talk about common interests, new movies, the weather, but not your depression. Refocus your thinking on positive things that you enjoy.

There’s no single answer to holiday depression, but trying small things can help you make progress toward feeling better. There’s no reason why the holiday season can’t be an enjoyable one. But if you find that nothing seems to make any real difference, you may want to contact a licensed mental health professional. Counseling professionals have been trained to help you work through these feelings.

Dr. Smith is the American Counseling Association’s associate executive director for professional affairs. He recently served as part of the American Red Cross Disaster Response team, providing emergency counseling to families directly affected by the tragic September 11 attack on the Pentagon.