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People get depressed during the winter, even in California. The days get shorter, and there's less light, even on sunny days.

But with blizzards sweeping other parts of the country, Californians don't always think they have the right to feel a little low.

When we asked readers how they coped with winter doldrums during an unseasonably sunny January, Doug Sanders of Petaluma raised the obvious question:

"Doesn't there have to be a winter for you to have the 'winter blues?'" he wrote.

But mental health experts say that many people still feel depressed this winter, despite weeks of daily afternoon sunshine. Recently, dark skies and light rain arrived, and yet drought fears remain to add worry to a low mood. It's even more important now to take care of yourself, both mentally and physically.

"Sometimes, feeling low between November and March is more than just the 'winter blues' or cloudy-rainy weather fatigue," said Roger Hock, director of the psychology department at Mendocino College in Ukiah.

"Some people are feeling down this winter in California, where we seem to be experiencing an endless summer this year," Hock added. "A diagnosable type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects up to 10 million Americans a year."

The holidays and the parties are over. Next summer, with its outdoor fun, festivals, beach parties and backyard barbecues, is still a long way off.

"Life in the winter is set up for indoor activities, even if it's nice outside. The daylight hours are still shorter," said psychologist Bert Epstein, assistant director of Santa Rosa Junior College's Student Health Services Mental Health Program.

People still need to eat and sleep well, and get outside of the house to exercise and socialize.

Today, assuming game time in New Jersey hasn't been changed due to a storm, football fans will hold Super Bowl parties all over the country, demonstrating that people crave holiday-style gatherings long after the Christmas season, Epstein said.

One crucial way to overcome winter depression is to stay active, exercising briefly several times a day, said Glenn Brassington, a clinical psychologist and professor in Sonoma State University's psychology department.

"That gets those happy, healthy hormones floating around," he said. "And obviously, getting enough sleep is important, but not too much sleep. Sleeping extra hours can reduce the amount of energy you have."

Licensed psychotherapist Lisa Wolper of Santa Rosa suggested people shouldn't worry too much about trying to be happy all the time.

"What I say to people is that it's really about coping and managing, and enhancing their vitality. There's a lot of talk about happiness, but I try to stay away from that word 'happy,' because it's very loaded," she said.

"I also talk to people about taking a cue from nature," Wolper said. "In previous generations, people were much more connected to the earth, so when it was cold or dark, they hunkered down. They weren't so resistant to the cycles of nature."

Some of the readers' suggestions for surviving the season seemed to echo the psychologists' and psychiatrists' recommendations -#8212; often in simple, practical terms.

"Eat lunch outside in the sun," Nina Bonos of Santa Rosa recommended. "Or, if it's not sunny at lunchtime, look for a time that is sunny, and when it is, drop everything you're doing and go outside for a walk."

Dani Burlison of Santa Rosa came up with her own five-point plan for staying upbeat.

"I do some combination of the following," she wrote. "1. Get outside to hike, walk, run, bike, swim, etc. 2. Eat a ton of fish and greens, and go to acupuncture. 3. Catch up on reading back issues of the New Yorker magazine. 4. Try new recipes with my kids. 5. Soak in hot water as often as possible."

Bridget Palmer of Santa Rosa said she planned "... dinner parties, cooking, baking and getting caught up with interesting films and TV shows I've missed."

Santa Rosan John Trubee kept his prescription concise: "I eat lotsa candy and play electric guitar into oblivion."

(You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.)