An Overview of the Holiday Blues

Black woman with the holiday blues

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The holidays are usually viewed as a time of happiness and rejoicing, but for some people, it can be a period of painful reflection, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Feelings of sadness that last throughout the holiday season, usually from November through December, are often referred to as the holiday blues. While typically less serious and shorter in duration than clinical depression, these feelings can have a major impact on your ability to function normally during this time of year.

Even people who love the holidays can experience the blues during this busy season. The holidays are often a time of high emotion and demands, which can leave a lot of people feeling stressed and exhausted. 

The holiday blues are not a recognized disorder, but that does not mean that short-term mental health problems should be ignored. Even mild and relatively brief problems can contribute to longer-lasting symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The holidays can be a particularly stressful time for those who are already coping with an existing mental health condition. In a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with an existing mental illness reported that the holidays made their condition worse.

Symptoms

The most common symptom of the holiday blues is a persistent or recurring feeling of sadness that begins during the holiday season. This feeling may vary in intensity and duration. Some people might feel down periodically, but experience brief periods of feeling more upbeat. Others may have more moderate to severe feelings of depression that last throughout the season. 

Some signs of the holiday blues might include:

  • Feelings of exhaustion and fatigue
  • Sleeping much more or much less than normal
  • Losing interest in activities that you normally enjoy
  • Lack of pleasure in normal activities
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Feeling irritable or angry

Even when participating in things that they would normally enjoy, people with the holiday blues have trouble enjoying themselves. Activities that are specifically related to the holiday itself, such as social events, family meals, and gift-giving, may actually trigger feelings of anxiety or sadness. 

Unfortunately, people sometimes turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to handle holiday sadness and stress. Excessive drinking, overeating, and poor sleep can make the symptoms of the holiday blues even more pronounced.

There is a difference between having the holiday blues, in which the symptoms usually go away once the holidays are over, and a more serious condition such as seasonal affective disorder or major depressive disorder

If you are having these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor or a mental health professional to determine if what you are experiencing is a case of seasonal, temporary sadness or a more lasting and serious case of depression.

Causes

There are a number of reasons why people might experience the holiday blues. Some of the possible causes include:

  • Stress; the holidays can be hectic and all that stress can sometimes make it difficult to feel the holiday cheer
  • Financial difficulties; overextending yourself financially or struggling to afford gifts for family and friends can create an added burden
  • The strain of dealing with extended family, particularly if you don’t get along
  • Unrealistic expectations; setting your sights too high and failing to live up to those expectations
  • Poor social support, isolation, and loneliness
  • Exhaustion
  • Not being able to go home for the holidays; missing your family and friends can make the holidays seem especially lonely
  • Nostalgia for holidays of the past

Because the holidays mark an impending new year, people may also begin to reflect on the past year and experience feelings of regret or failure. They might think about the goals that they had and the things that they wanted to do or accomplish and feel upset if they did not meet those expectations.

Sometimes even having high hopes for the season can lead to stress, anxiety, and sadness. The overcommercialization of the holidays creates the expectation that people are supposed to feel nonstop joy and holiday cheer. It creates pressure to feel a very specific way, which adds yet another stressor to an already hectic time of year.

The added burden of caring for houseguests, preparing and serving meals, shopping for gifts, and other holiday preparations can create even more anxiety. 

It isn't just adults who are prone to seasonal sadness. Parents should recognize that children and teens are also susceptible to the holiday blues. Changes in routines, dealing with family problems, missing friends, and feeling stressed about the holidays can all contribute to feelings of sadness and anxiety in kids. Watch for the signs and talk to your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned.

Diagnosis

The ‘holiday blues’ is not an officially recognized psychiatric condition in the DSM-5, the official manual that is often used to diagnose mental health conditions. This does not mean that you should not talk to your doctor about your symptoms. 

During your appointment, your doctor will ask questions about the types of symptoms you have been experiencing, including the duration and severity. 

Your doctor can assess your symptoms and determine if what you are feeling is more of a case or temporary seasonal sadness or a form of depression. Your doctor can also perform tests to check for any underlying medical conditions that might be contributing to your symptoms. Hypothyroidism, for example, can sometimes lead to fatigue and feelings of depression.

Holiday Blues or SAD?

Feeling sad during the winter and holiday months may also be a sign of a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This condition often occurs as the darker, shorter days of fall and winter when it is colder and there is less sunlight. The key difference is that SAD usually lasts until winter ends, where the holiday blues usually lift shortly after the new year begins.

Symptoms of SAD include depression, mood swings, fatigue, bouts of crying, insomnia, decreased activity levels, and low sex drive. Medications can be helpful for preventing and treating seasonal affective disorder.

Treatment

Unless you are diagnosed with a more serious case of depression, your doctor probably won’t prescribe medications to treat your symptoms. In many cases, you can manage the holiday blues on your own with lifestyle changes and social support. 

Your doctor may also refer you to a mental health professional for psychotherapy or counseling. Just because the holiday blues are usually short-term does not mean that talking to a mental health professional won’t help. 

Your therapist can work with you to identify patterns of negative thinking that contribute to feelings of sadness and depression and replace such thoughts with more helpful ones, an approach that is known as cognitive-behavioral therapy

Therapy can also help you develop better stress management, communication, and relationship skills that can be helpful in both the short and long-term.

Coping

In addition to talking to your doctor or a mental health professional, there are a number of things that you can do on your own to make the holidays easier to deal with. 

Avoid Excessive Alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant and drinking too much can exacerbate any negative feelings that you might have. This doesn't mean you need to go cold turkey. Instead, limit your consumptions and avoid using alcohol as a way to deal with or avoid difficult emotions. Try to limit your alcohol consumption when you are out at social functions to one or two drinks.

Don’t Isolate Yourself

Social isolation can be a major risk factor for depression. The problem is that sadness often makes you want to hide by yourself at home. And if you are on your own apart from family for the holidays, reaching out and finding social connections can be all the more difficult.

Look for ways that you can enjoy social connections, even if you aren’t able to go home for the holidays. Co-workers and friends can offer support, or consider hosting a holiday get-together in your home for friends or neighbors.

Most importantly, reach out. If you’re feeling lonely, ask a friend to come over for a heart to heart. Call someone you’re missing, join a local club, volunteer for something you believe in, or even see a counselor for support.

Try to Exercise Regularly

While it can be difficult to stick to a workout schedule when you are feeling down, research has shown that regular physical activity can play an important role in preventing and reducing symptoms of depression. 

In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that just one hour of physical activity each week was enough to prevent future cases of depression. 

The study followed nearly 34,000 adults over the course of 11 years. The participants were selected because they were considered "healthy" and showed no signs of mental or physical health conditions at the outset of the study. The results revealed that engaging in at least an hour of leisure-time exercise of any intensity helped protect against symptoms of depression. 

So while hitting the gym can be tough when you are stressed, busy, and feeling sad, try to remember that you don’t need to be a slave to the treadmill or weight machine to feel the benefits. Even a casual, recreational activity like going for a short walk each day might be enough to help keep the blues at bay.

Set Limits

The holidays often mean that there are more people asking for help and making demands on your time and resources. Holiday party invites can turn into stressful social obligations. Small favors for friends can morph into huge projects that you didn't anticipate.

You can avoid overcommitting by knowing your limits and learning how to say no. That doesn’t mean that you should say “no” to everything, but make sure that you leave enough time for yourself to relax and enjoy the season.

Even when you can’t turn something or someone down, like when your boss asks you to work extra hours so someone else can have a day off, find ways to practice self-care during the busy season. Just 15 to 20 minutes a day to enjoy some quiet time, read a book, listen to music, take a bath, do yoga, or some other relaxing activity can do wonders for your stress levels.

Have Realistic Expectations

It’s fine to be excited about the holidays and make plans for the things you want to do. But it is important to keep your expectations sensible.

The holidays don’t have to be perfect to be special. They don’t have to be exactly like the holidays of the past to be just as meaningful and memorable.

Holidays change just as people change. Kids grow older, people move, and new people will become a part of your life. The key is to focus on those connections, create new traditions, and remember past holidays with fondness while still enjoying the one right in front of you.

Focus on enjoying the experience and the time you get to spend with your loved ones rather than on achieving a picture-perfect end result.

How to Get Help

If the holiday blues turn into something more serious or if your sadness doesn’t ease after the holidays are over, your symptoms might be a sign of something else. You might have a condition such as SAD or major depressive disorder, or you might need to explore other treatment options including psychotherapy and medications.

If your symptoms aren’t getting better or you are struggling to function as you normally do, it’s time to talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, talk to your doctor immediately or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They offer support and resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you or a loved one is at immediate risk of suicide, call emergency services immediately.

A Word From Verywell

The holiday blues can turn November and December into a time of dread and despair, but there are things that you can do to turn things around. Start by paying attention to the things that are contributing to stress, anxiety, and depression. By understanding the things that lead to your seasonal sadness, you can start taking steps to control these triggers before they hijack your happiness.

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