Socialization demands, financial pressure, and a push to be festive can bring a variety of stress — including symptoms of depression. But support is available to help you cope.
The holidays are portrayed as a positive time of year. The joy and happiness of others may motivate us to attend celebrations and exchange gifts of gratitude.
But behind the scenes, the holiday season can be extremely stressful.
You may have to battle crowds for minor shopping tasks; you might need to juggle additional responsibilities; maybe money isn’t as available this year.
Whatever the reasons, the holidays can be a challenging time for many people. And it’s not uncommon to experience symptoms of depression despite all the holiday cheer.
For many people, these symptoms around the holidays are known as the “holiday blues.”
Holiday depression may make you want to activate “Grinch mode”, but there are ways to help keep negative thoughts from squashing the joy of the season.
Self-care is the act of treating yourself with kindness, forgiveness, and consideration — like you would a loved one.
Crecenra Flim Boyd, PhD, a board certified licensed professional counselor from Menlo Park, California, says taking care of yourself can be important during the holidays and recommends:
- acknowledging your feelings
- resting when needed
- eating healthy foods
- staying active
- maintaining a support network
2. The emotional freedom technique
Melissa Barsotti, a licensed clinical social worker from San Diego, suggests using the emotional freedom technique (EFT) when you need to move away from a negative holiday thought.
EFT, also known as tapping, starts with an identifying statement, followed by words of compassion and acceptance.
Barsotti says an example would be: “Even though I feel anxious or alone, I love and accept myself.”
After your statement, your fingertips tap points on the body, like your collarbone, to help center and ground your thoughts.
3. Deep breathing
Another way you can practice calming the mind and body is through deep breathing.
While there are many ways you can practice breath-oriented calming, Barsotti says it can be as simple as focusing on making your exhale longer than your inhale.
4. Light therapy
If your holiday depression is related to less sunlight or major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, once known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), using light therapy may help.
Lightboxes allow you to gain concentrated light exposure without the harmful UV rays, though they may not be suitable for everyone.
Too many things going on at once? It’s okay to say no — or yes — with your best interests in mind.
“Boundaries are not just about saying no to things that drain your energy but also saying yes to things that lift you up and energize you,” says Sarah Rollins, a licensed social worker from Southfield, Michigan.
Common causes of holiday depression can include:
- financial strain
- familial conflict
- social demands
- cramped schedules
- excessive drinking
- inability to be with loved ones
- reminders of grief
- hyperawareness of isolation or loneliness
- increased travel and time away from home
- hosting duties
- decreased sunlight/outdoor exposure
- colder weather
Mental health conditions, like major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, can also play a role in why symptoms of depression coincide with the holidays.
Sometimes, the holidays are a painful reminder of happier times.
Barsotti explains the holidays have a way of making you focus on two key aspects of sadness: not having, or losing, someone or something.
“Financially, our not having the financing we want is very noticeable. Not having the partner we want, not having the healthy relationships we want with others. Our losses of loved ones and cherished pets are also very missed,” she says.
You can feel down during the holidays and not be experiencing clinical depression.
General low mood, also known as dysphoria, can present as:
- cognitive impairment
- poor concentration
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), holiday blues may indicate major depressive disorder when five or more of the following symptoms appear within the same 2-week period:
- depressed mood nearly all day, every day
- loss of pleasure or interest in almost all activities
- significant weight changes
- insomnia or hypersomnia almost every day
- restlessness or slowed psychomotor function
- daily fatigue
- feelings of worthlessness or excessive/inappropriate guilt
- regular cognitive impairment
- suicide ideation
For a depression diagnosis, at least one symptom present must be a depressed mood or loss of pleasure or interest. The experience must also cause clinically significant impairment to important areas of function.
If you believe you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, consider speaking with a qualified professional for support during this time.
If you’re considering acting on suicidal thoughts, please seek professional support immediately.
Calling or texting a crisis helpline will connect you with a trained counselor 24/7, any day of the year, completely free of charge:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
- Text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
The holidays are a time of celebration, but according to a poll conducted on behalf of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2021, Americans are five times more likely to say their stress levels increase, rather than decrease, this time of year.
Other findings in the poll reveal almost half (46%) of adults worry about affording gifts, and family dynamics and social interactions are a cause of significant anxiety for many people.
The “holiday blues” may even lead to episodes of clinical depression. In 2014, a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) report found:
- the majority of people feel the holidays contribute to feelings of sadness
- 68% feel financially constrained
- 66% experience loneliness
- 63% feel too much pressure
- 57% are burdened by unrealistic expectations
- 55% feel they were happier in times past
- 64% living with mental health conditions felt the holidays made symptoms worse
Positive mental health impact
The holidays aren’t all doom and gloom.
“The holidays can give a break from the day-to-day routine and increase time for rest, relaxation, creativity, socializing, and building stronger relationship bonds,” points out Boyd.
“This can improve physical health, self-esteem, problem-solving, and other mental functioning.”
If you notice a loved one seems down when the holidays hit, they may be one of the many people going through a form of holiday depression.
To help support them, Rollins and Boyd recommend:
- validating their feelings if they confide in you
- listening without offering unasked for advice, judgment, or criticism
- making plans with them to do an enjoyable (possibly non-holiday) activity
You can also be on the lookout for ways to help alleviate the burden on your loved one during the holidays.
If they’re always in charge during the holiday season, offering to make a dish to pass, picking up the groceries, accompanying them shopping, or helping decorate may be a huge help and morale boost.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed during this holiday season, you’re not alone.
The holiday blues are real. They can come from a general sense of low mood, or they may indicate the start of a depressive episode.
While there are many reasons why you might not feel festive or joyous this time of year, self-care strategies, boundaries, and an empathetic support network can help keep holiday depression at bay.