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Holiday Blues: What to Know

December 25, 2021

cat in blue party hat

Well, it is that time of year again. Bells ringing outside of storefronts, streets glowing with holiday lights, and the many celebrations among family members and friends abound. Regardless of your religious affiliation, the cheer of the holidays, and the festive activities that follow can bring great joy and gratitude.

But for many, the holiday season can invite feelings of loneliness, isolation, and sadness within. 

Whether you’re prone to depression or not, the holiday’s can trigger an onslaught of mental, physical, and emotional symptoms that can quickly turn into the blues. 

While the term itself, “holiday blues,” suggests that feelings of increased stress, anxiety, and sadness pass when the holiday season ends, these signs and symptoms can escalate into more serious mental health disorders if not taken care of during the holiday season. 

We also know that people with prior mental health conditions may be more prone to experiencing holiday depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with existing mental illness report that the holiday season worsens their condition.

What are some signs of the holiday blues?

Changes in weight or appetite 

Changes in sleep patterns

Depressed or irritable mood

Difficulty concentrating

Feelings of worthlessness or guilt

Feeling more tired than usual 

Feeling tense, worried, or anxious

Loss of pleasure in doing things you used to enjoy

What’s the difference between Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the holiday blues?

While Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the holiday blues can mimic many signs and symptoms of depression, such as irregular sleep patterns, shifts in appetite, lack of motivation, and loss of interest, it is important to note the difference between feeling low during the holiday months and suffering from SAD. 

SAD is defined in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a form of Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. 

SAD differs from the holiday blues in its severity and duration. While the holiday blues start around November or December and pass soon after the new year ends, SAD typically starts in the late fall and early winter and goes away during the spring and summer. 

What are some causes of the holiday blues?

These days it doesn’t take much to feel overwhelmed by the holiday season. Soon after we clear our plates from the Thanksgiving table, we’re on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree, assembling wreaths, smelling the nostalgic scent of cinnamon sticks, standing below the mistle-toe, and wondering why we aren’t feeling jolly and bright. 

Unrealistic expectations: The holiday’s can be riddled with thoughts of “should.” Unrealistic expectations of who to spend Christmas Eve with, how many presents to place beneath the tree, which family photo to share with the world, and how to make my loved ones feel loved. 

The strain on finances, energy, and time can leave us feeling empty and irritable as we gather around the table and hold hands. 

The holiday season is full of receiving, reflecting, and releasing the energy of the past twelve months. With the new year approaching, we may begin to dwell on the past year and criticize ourselves for the choices we made. 

Change in sleep patterns: Our hectic holiday schedules can lead to lack of sleep, which increases our levels of stress and sadness. 

Overconsumption: The pressure to indulge at holiday gatherings, or the tendency to overindulgence to cope with holiday sadness and stress can lead to binge eating and drinking. What and how much we choose to consume can prevent or severely worsen the holiday blues. 

Financial stress: The mounting wishlists addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Claus can leave you feeling excessively stressed. Overextending yourself financially, or struggling to fill the stockings and afford gifts for the family can create unnecessary, additional financial stress. Isolation and loneliness: The scene of roasting chestnuts and mulled wine can carry memories of loved ones that are far away or no longer with us. The holidays can be an emotionally difficult time for anyone experiencing loneliness or isolation, and in the past few years with the coronavirus pandemic, who hasn’t experienced loneliness in some form?

What are some strategies to cope with the holiday blues?

Set aside time for yourself (without isolating yourself): Take time for yourself! Engage in activities that bring you joy. Having a daily ritual, activity, or outing for yourself can boost your mood and keep you feeling balanced. 

Get plenty of sleep, make healthy food choices, stay active, and do something uplifting for yourself. The holidays are a time for giving: you won’t experience joy and gratitude without giving to yourself.  

Limit your alcohol intake: With all of the holiday festivities, it can be difficult to abstain from drinking during the season. But excessive alcohol intake can cause detrimental physical, mental, and emotional health consequences. Try to limit your alcohol intake, or ditch the beverages all together, and opt for peppermint tea or hot cider. 

Limit your time on social media: Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram have the dangerous power of making us feel even more lonely, disconnected, and dissatisfied with our lives, 

especially around the holidays. Everyone likes to portray their holiday as filled with gratitude and cheer, but remember, joy can only be experienced in the present moment, so put away your phone.  

Double check your holiday expectations: Soon it will be time for chocolates and roses, so do not compromise your mental and physical health this holiday season by attending every social obligation, family dinner, or gift swap. Set boundaries and be comfortable with saying no to events and people that might add stress to your plate. It can be helpful to be upfront with loved ones and friends (to the degree you feel comfortable with) about your financial status, energy levels, or prior obligations. 

Remind yourself what the holidays mean to you: Some people can’t imagine their holiday without gift-giving, wreath-making, cookie baking, or attending a holiday bash. Everyone has a different holiday “love language.” What is special to some people might not resonate with you. Instead of putting the pressure on how you “should” be celebrating this holiday season, find out which traditions really matter to you. We can all give love and show gratitude in different ways. 

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.