It’s the holiday season, and you must be happy. Cheerful music is on all the radio stations and the television will only show movies about reindeer and elves and wacky gift hijinks. Your neighbors’ houses are all lit up and everyone is having a party! AND YOU’RE INVITED!!!

But what if you’re just not feeling it? What if you want to retreat into a cave, skip the gifts and parties, and hibernate until spring?

First things first: YOU FEEL SAD BECAUSE YOU ARE NORMAL. It is normal to feel sad, even in December. Even that guy who covers his entire front lawn with inflatable Santas gets cranky when he goes to the mall and ends up fighting crowds and waiting in a line 30 deep at the register as “Jingle Bells” is repeatedly pumped into his ears.

But some of us are more than just annoyed with the holiday hype. If you’re like me, you just start irrationally hating everything when winter rolls around. Or technically, it starts in the fall, when you start waking up in the dark, thinking, I’m going to quit school and life and just lie in bed every day playing Angry Birds…no, I hate those stupid pigs and their stupid faces, I’m just going to sleep for the REST OF MY LIFE.

What I have is called seasonal depression, technically Seasonal Affective Disorder (with the super-appropriate acronym SAD), and it’s caused by, among other things, the shorter days this time of year. If you already have depression (like me), it might get worse in winter. And depression is a sneaky thing—you feel like whatever is bugging you is totally logical, and you don’t realize that “Oh hey, it’s winter, maybe my parents and teachers haven’t actually turned into demons. It’s just my confused brain chemicals.”

A lot of people don’t think that the term “depression” applies to them, because they associate the label with dramatic things like cutting or suicide. But most cases of depression are more subtle. You might feel overwhelmed by normal stress. Your self-esteem might take a huge dive. You might not have the energy for schoolwork. You may even have physical symptoms like stomach pain or headaches—I had nausea so bad that I had to skip breakfast for eight years or so.

But once you recognize that your emotions aren’t quite in line with the world around you, you have the opportunity to do something about it. Without getting all “Winter tips to beat the blues!” on you, here is what has helped me:

1. Relax, relax, relax.

I’m not going to say “just cheer up already,” because that’s the worst thing to say to a depressed person. If depression were a choice, no one would have it. Depressed people have to make an extra effort to be happy and relaxed, but that effort is worth it. I took up meditation to fight my anxiety. Exercise will help clear your mind too, and regular exercise is an actually proven treatment for depression. There’s also this thing called progressive muscle relaxation that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE if you have trouble with sleeping, muscle tenseness, or anxiety. Seriously, try it.

Schedule moments when you’re not allowed to worry—easier said than done, but if you can turn your anxiety off even for a few minutes, you’ll at least have those few minutes of freedom. As I said earlier, I meditate, so I usually go into a meditative state and think of nothing for my scheduled non-worrying time, but you might find it easier to listen to some music or read a book to give you something other than your own thoughts to concentrate on.

And don’t feel guilty about having fun. Your brain might try to tell you that you don’t deserve it, but your brain is a liar. Everyone needs fun. Especially those of us who don’t turn into cheerful automatons at the first notes of “Jingle Bell Rock.”

2. Know your limits.

On the other hand, it’s OK not to have fun too. If you’re at the end of your rope freaking out over that big paper due right before break and finding time to buy gifts and suddenly you’ve been offered the lead in the school play…you don’t have to accept. It’s OK to turn things down occasionally if they sound like they’re going to be more stress than fun.

I have anxiety along with my depression, and I get overwhelmed at parties. My family loves to party. And I love my family, but sometimes all the noise and people get to me, and I have to be alone. I find a quiet room and take some deep breaths before heading back into the din. I don’t go to clubs or parties where I know there will be a lot of loud music and loud people, because I know I won’t have fun. Know your limits, and go ahead and turn an invitation down or take a break if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

This can be difficult, especially if you don’t feel like you have supportive adults around. Finding even one friend you can talk to helps. But if you’re comfortable asking for professional help, do it. It’s a big, scary step, but it’s so worth it.

I finally went to my college counseling center after weeks of an unrelenting headache and a total inability to get my work done. I told them I needed “study help.” The counselor knew right away that my study skills weren’t the problem. I was given medication and therapy, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that within days of starting meds, I was a new person. I had energy to do my schoolwork, my lifelong nausea actually cleared up, and I could talk to people without worrying that opening my mouth might ruin everything. For the first time in my life, I could live without crippling doubt and fear.

But if you just need to talk, or you don’t want to go through your parents, there are other options. Do a Google search for your local mental-health hotlines. Make an appointment with your school guidance counselor. Maybe talk to a relative or a friend’s parents, if you feel more comfortable with them. Or even just vent to your friends, and listen to them if they say you need help. Sometimes we can’t see how bad things have gotten in our own heads.

Finally, you have to accept that you may never feel as happy and well-adjusted as most of the people around you. First, stop comparing yourself to them, because for all you know they’re putting on an act to cover their own issues. Second, know that it’s OK not to be happy all the time. Your goal should be to find the middle ground between creepy forced cheerfulness and being miserable. Do what you can, and since it is December, enjoy the good parts of the holiday season: the presents, the food, whatever it is that you can actually stand. My favorite part? Winter Solstice, which is on December 22nd this year. Once the solstice is over, the days start getting longer and my SAD starts losing its mojo. Best gift of the season, right there. ♦