The holidays aren’t the most wonderful time of year for many people. Stress, pressure, financial strain, loneliness, difficult feelings, and even mental health conditions like depression can manifest during this time.
If there’s a particular upcoming holiday event that feels stressful, it can help to stay present, set realistic expectations, plan ahead, and remind yourself that it won’t last forever (IE, “it’s just one day”). To plan ahead, you may talk with a friend and decide to meet up or call each other afterward, or you may set an intention to take a walk or spend time on another hobby that helps you de-stress and recenter yourself.
What Depression Around The Holidays Can Look Like
Some people report feeling the “holiday blues” at this time of year, or trouble dealing with the effects of extra stress or being overwhelmed. This is different from experiencing symptoms of a condition like clinical depression, which a trained mental health professional can identify. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—another form of depression—may also affect people at this time of year, especially in parts of the world where there’s limited sunlight in winter months.
Depression and SAD can share similar symptoms, some of which can be brought about, or exacerbated by, additional stressors common at this time of year. The “holiday blues” may manifest in some of these ways too, but those symptoms are typically less severe and shorter-lived.
Here are a few signs that may point to some form of depression:
- Social withdrawal
- Irritability and mood swings
- Sadness, hopelessness, or apathy
- Significant changes in sleeping or eating habits
- The inability to get joy from activities once enjoyed
Again, feeling low during the holidays is not the same as experiencing a mental health condition like depression or SAD. Regardless, a mental health professional can help you unpack and manage any difficult feelings you may be facing at this time of year.
Possible Causes Of Depression Around The Holidays
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with an existing mental health condition report that the holidays make it worse. The stress or loneliness of this time of year can also trigger the onset of certain conditions. Whether you’re feeling the “holiday blues,” suspect you may have depression, or feel that your existing depression has worsened lately, there may be a few different elements of this season that are contributing.
- Triggers: Those who had traumatic experiences during the holidays in the past may themselves, be reliving or experiencing emotions associated with those times. Someone who has lost family relatives with whom they used to spend holidays may also face difficult emotions during this season.
- Comparison: Thanks to movies, social media, and even picture-perfect holiday cards, this season can spark unrealistic expectations and make it hard to avoid comparing ourselves, and our lives, to those of others. When it appears that family and friends around you are having a joyous, perfect holiday season—regardless of how true that actually is—constantly comparing that to one's own reality can take a toll on one's mental health.
- Isolation: The holidays can be especially difficult for those who lack family, community, or other social connections with whom to spend the season. Whether they’re estranged from or have lost loved ones, live far away from them and are unable to travel because of illness, finances, or physical disabilities, or are facing isolation for some other reason, being alone during the holidays can have a negative impact on a person's mental health as well.
- Stress: This time of year is stressful for many people. A jam-packed schedule full of holiday activities, traveling or hosting guests, buying gifts, managing financial demands, dealing with family conflict, and other elements of the season can become overwhelming and lead to burnout. A lack of sleep and exercise or a poor diet due to busyness can have negative effects on one’s mental state, too.
Tips For Managing Symptoms Of Depression During The Holidays
1. Connect With A Therapist
It’s important to note that seeking treatment involving a mental health professional is typically recommended if you suspect you may have a mental health condition like depression. A trained counselor can provide a listening ear to whom you can express your feelings, and they can help you identify patterns as well as create strategies to manage symptoms, and sometimes your health insurance will cover the expense.
Remember that it’s usually best to seek treatment in the way that feels most comfortable for you. If you’re interested in the availability of online therapy, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed therapist who you can meet with virtually. Since research suggests that online therapy can provide similar benefits to in-person sessions, some people find this to be a convenient option. If you prefer in-person treatment, you can search for providers in your local area.
In addition to getting the professional support you deserve, the other tips on this list may help you navigate the holiday season a bit more easily or healthfully.
2. Set Boundaries
Setting boundaries with one’s family and friends may help you safeguard your mental health, especially during the holiday season. While you should generally take care not to socially isolate yourself when experiencing symptoms of depression, saying no to gatherings, parties, or travel that will make you uncomfortable or stressed may be helpful. You might also set boundaries regarding what conversation topics you won’t engage on when spending time with family who you don’t see eye to eye with. You could even set financial limits on how much you’ll spend on gifts, if anything, or how far you’ll travel for holiday celebrations. Remember that you have the right to do what’s best for you and your mental health at this time of year, even if that doesn’t meet the expectations of others.
3. Create New Traditions
This tip is especially applicable to those who have traumatic memories of past holidays, or are coping with the loss of a loved one they used to spend holidays with. While honoring traditions may help some who are grieving, creating entirely new ones may be the right approach for others. Participating in a Friendsgiving dinner with your chosen family rather than your biological family is one example of how you could do this. Convincing your family to do a biscuit exchange or secret santa instead of all buying gifts for each other is another idea. Think about the parts of the holiday that you don’t like or that trigger difficult feelings or memories for you, and then try brainstorming alternatives that may help you form new associations.
4. Build Healthy Habits
Sleeping enough, eating healthfully, and exercising can be more difficult for people who are experiencing depression, but research shows that they can all be beneficial for mental health. Several studies have identified a link between a healthy diet and a lower risk of developing depression, and exercise has even been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression. If you find that your symptoms make it more challenging to practice self-care in these ways, a therapist may be able to help you find more creative strategies. It could also help to find a friend you can take regular walks with, for instance, or you could take up meditation to help improve your sleep quality.
5. Be Gentle With Yourself
The holidays are a difficult time for many people; you’re not alone. It can be a high-stress, high-pressure time of year full of expectations, over commercialization, and even conflict or tough emotions. While movies and social media may make you feel like you’re “doing it wrong” if you’re not experiencing a joyous, picture-perfect holiday, try to remind yourself that it’s okay to experience difficult feelings during the holiday season. It’s okay not to celebrate the way others do, or at all, and it’s okay to not enjoy this time of year. Try to be patient and gentle with yourself. There’s no “right” way to experience the holidays, and it’s understandable to find them difficult, stressful, or sad. Focus on taking care of yourself and seeking the support you need to manage hard feelings during this time.
The holidays are a difficult and fraught time for many. If you’re concerned that the sadness you’re feeling at this time of year may be indicative of depression, the tips on this list can help you take care of yourself and manage your symptoms. If you feel you need support, mental health professionals are available to provide it.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideations, please call the 988 Suicide And Crisis Lifeline at 988.
If you or someone you know is or might be experiencing a substance use disorder of any kind, please contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Other Commonly Asked Questions
How do holidays affect mental health?
There are statistics on holidays and mental health. According to the national alliance of mental illness or Nami website, 64% of individuals who live with mental health conditions or a mental health disorder (IE, clinical depression) find that the holidays make their condition worse. Specifically, 24% of those who live with a diagnosed mental illness of some kind find that the holidays make their disorder or condition “a lot” worse, and 40% say that the holidays make their disorder or condition “somewhat” worse.
Similarly, even those without a diagnosable mental health condition may experience holiday sadness or the holiday blues. Although they may come with holiday cheer, not everyone experiences holidays such as Thanksgiving day, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or New Year’s Day the same. Amidst all of the holiday decorations, these can be times of stress. If you live with a condition such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called major depression with a seasonal pattern, it may be beneficial to seek professional help in the form of talk therapy. There are a number of ways to make this more affordable, such as online therapy platforms like BetterHelp and professionals in your area who offer sliding scale rates. A therapist can help you set realistic goals, find coping skills, and build a treatment plan that works for you as a unique person.
Alongside professional support, there are numerous ways to help yourself cope with holiday stress. For example, stress management and self care activities such as meal prep, meditation, breathing exercises, or physical activity, setting boundaries so that you do not take on more stress, and spending time with supportive and caring people can all be helpful. Supportive people in your life may include but are not limited to old or new friends, loved ones such as a significant other or a specific family, and people in a support group that you attend. Social connection can be crucial. After all, it’s linked to lower stress levels as well as other improved markers of both physical and mental health.
Why do I struggle with holidays?
There are a number of different reasons as to why someone may struggle with holidays. First, the holiday season is during a time when many individuals experience seasonal depression. It is considered very common to have seasonal affective disorder or major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. In fact, according to the MHA or Mental Health America website, SAD affects 5% of the US population. Patterns of SAD may start in late fall and endure through late spring, though they can vary and may also occur during the Summer for some. Second, the holiday season can be a significant source of stress. Some people don’t get along with their family, find it difficult to be in the area where their family live, which they might visit during holiday season, or may experience stress that relates to family and holiday events in another way. The holiday season can also be a time of financial stress. If you have experienced grief or the loss of a loved one, this can be a challenge during the holidays.
All in all, you aren’t alone if you don’t find the holiday season an easy time, and there are various things that can help. Attending talk therapy, surrounding yourself with supportive and caring people, such as your friends or other loved ones (IE, a romantic partner), and self care can all be advantageous. Hobbies and low-stress activities like art, window shopping, and so on, may be something to highlight. Don’t hesitate to reach out for support if you notice ongoing feelings of sadness or otherwise need space to talk.
What are vacation blues?
The vacation blues generally refer to the feelings of sadness someone might encounter post-vacation. If you’re experiencing the “vacation blues,” you may find yourself comparing today to how you felt on vacation, especially if you experienced less stress or more joy while away. There are a couple of things that can help people avoid the vacation blues or post-vacation sadness. First, it can help to plan ahead; you may clean your home before you go to set yourself up for success, as an example. Second, you might plan something to look forward to after your vacation. What if the blues don’t go away? If you experience persistent feelings of sadness, have trouble with important activities, or otherwise experience ongoing concerns, reach out to a professional who can help, such as a therapist.
Why do I not like holidays?
There are a number of reasons as to why someone might not like the holidays. Holiday stress is common and might relate to finances, family life, being away from your support system due to travel, or something else. If you experienced an adverse event during the holiday season in the past, the holidays might prompt negative memories and sadness. People may be more apt to engage in excessive drinking - this can be difficult for those with a history of alcohol use disorder and other similar concerns.
Why do the holidays make me so sad?
How do I fix my holiday blues?
What percentage of people get depressed during the holidays?
Does everyone get holiday blues?
Why am I dreading my holiday?
What is holiday trauma?
How can I stop being sad after the holiday?
Is holiday anxiety a thing?
What is post-vacation syndrome?
What is the most depressing day of the year?
How do I fix my holiday blues?
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