For those dealing with holiday depression, the season of joy may not feel joyful at all. Holiday depression is more common than you may think. In a national survey on holiday depression done by the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), roughly 64% of people reported having the holiday blues.
Symptoms include feeling sad, lonely, and lethargic during the winter festivities. And though holiday depression symptoms mostly go away on their own after the holidays, for some people, they linger and lead to more serious types of depression, including major depressive disorder.
In this article, we go over what holiday depression is, the causes and symptoms of holiday depression, and provide some helpful tips on how to deal with holiday depression to help get you through the season.
What is holiday depression?
“Holiday depression,” also known as the “holiday blues” or the “Christmas blues,” is a general feeling of sadness or discontent during the winter holidays.
Although people talk about “holiday depression,” it isn’t an official diagnosis. The holiday blues are different from depression. Depression is a serious and chronic mental health disorder that requires treatment.
Some people who feel depressed during the holidays may have a depressive disorder (while others simply feel a mild feeling of sadness). The only way to know whether you’re experiencing true depression or simply the holiday blues is to see a mental health provider for a diagnostic assessment.
People with pre-existing depression can also experience the holiday blues. According to NAMI, around 1 in 4 people who live with a mental health illness say that their symptoms get worse during the holidays.
What causes holiday depression?
Just like other types of depression, holiday depression has no single cause. Many factors increase the risk of developing depression in general, including:
- Genetics: Researchers believe that there’s a genetic component to depression, and people who experience it are more likely to have a parent or sibling who experiences it as well.
- Traumatic and stressful experiences: Life events can contribute to a higher risk of depression. For example, studies have found that people who experience childhood abuse are much more likely to develop depression later on.
- Biology: People with depression may have some brain differences. For example, early theories stated they might have lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that impacts mood – although the serotonin theory of depression suggests that this may not be the case for most people.
On top of these risk factors for all types of depression, other factors contribute to holiday depression or the blues, including the following.
Many people feel a heightened sense of loneliness during the holidays. We could feel lonely because we aren’t able to spend the holidays with our family and other loved ones due to practical reasons, like living far apart.
We could long for a romantic partner to spend the season with or be missing an ex after a breakup. And idealistic depictions of friendship and family in the media may make us wish we had more close relationships.
The holidays have a way of bringing up underlying feelings of loneliness, even if we manage to push them down the rest of the year. For some people, this loneliness can contribute to depression.
Many people experience depression during the holidays because of the high – and often unrealistic – expectations of the season. We hear the songs on the radio and watch the movies, and often, the message is that this is a happy time. We’re supposed to feel constant “holiday joy,” and there’s no room for any other emotion.
When we feel pressured to feel a certain way, it can lead to disappointment when more realistic emotions get in the way. These unfulfilled expectations of holiday joy and magic can be devastating for some people and lead to sadness.
Drinking alcohol is a normalized practice in our society, particularly during the holidays. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, when people go out for holiday binge drinking, more than a quarter of yearly alcohol profits are made in the months between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But drinking doesn’t come without risks – especially for people who live with depression and/or are prone to experience holiday depression.
People may temporarily feel better when drinking alcohol, but drinking is linked with increased rates of depression and anxiety and can contribute to holiday depression.
The holiday season is undeniably stressful. Our social calendars are overbooked, and we’re forced to spend time with family members we have conflicts with. We may have additional responsibilities and deadlines at work. Many people have financial stress due to the overwhelming pressure to buy gifts and entertain.
The American Psychological Association found that nearly 90% of people report higher stress levels around the holidays.
It’s well-documented that stress is a contributing factor to depression and anxiety. When emotional resources are tied up with holiday stress, it can leave people more vulnerable to feeling depressed.
Seasonal changes can lead to depression for some people. The days get shorter and darker as we head into the holiday season, and this can lead to what’s known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. The stress of the holidays can make symptoms of SAD worse and vice versa.
What are holiday depression symptoms?
Feelings of mild sadness during the holidays are common. However, it’s important to distinguish these feelings from clinical depression. Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, is a serious mental health condition; when left untreated, its symptoms can impact every area of your life.
Some of the core symptoms that characterize clinical depression include:
- A nagging feeling of sadness, numbness, or irritability
- Loss of interest in activities that you typically enjoy
- Changes in appetite or eating habits, like eating a lot more than usual
- Changes in sleep patterns, including sleeping too much
- Mood changes
- Fatigue or low energy
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt
- Thoughts of death or suicide
The core symptoms of holiday depression or the holiday blues are limited to a milder feeling of sadness, loneliness, and/or listlessness or fatigue.
For some people – especially when diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder rather than typical depression – symptoms are more pronounced and may come on as the winter approaches and go away once the holiday season is over. Others may experience these symptoms all year round but feel them more intensely during the holidays.
How to deal with holiday depression
It’s important to know how to deal with holiday depression and how to cope with it. Here are some holiday depression tips to help you survive the season.
Connect with loved ones
Loneliness is one of the main contributors to the holiday blues. If you’re feeling lonely during the holidays, know you’re not alone.
Regardless of what’s making you feel lonely – whether you’re missing family members or wishing you had a romantic partner – remember to connect with people you enjoy spending time with this season. Resist the temptation to isolate yourself. Take this opportunity to build new relationships and invest in the ones you already have.
Keep in mind that family conflict can also contribute to the holiday blues – so be mindful of who you’re connecting with.
Watch alcohol intake
One of the major causes of holiday depression is excess alcohol. Although the temptation to drink at office holiday parties and family gatherings can be overwhelming, try to drink only in moderation or refrain from drinking altogether. You might think alcohol will make you feel better, but it’s a depressant.
It’s easier said than done, but physical activity is one of the most effective ways to prevent and reduce feelings of depression. It’s understandable to lose motivation to work out on the cold, dark days of winter – but try to find ways to move your body as much as possible. There’s no need to run in the snow and ice. Find simple ways to exercise, like taking the stairs at your office or doing an online dance class at home.
Set and stick to boundaries
If you’re feeling burned out due to a too-busy social calendar, it’s important to make and stick to boundaries. Let loved ones know what you’re willing – and unwilling – to take on this holiday season. If you’re not willing to host events, let family know ahead of time so they can make other arrangements.
Boundaries apply to financial wellness as well. Stress about money doesn’t need to ruin your holidays. Set spending limits for gifts or make alternate arrangements with family members as needed.
Lower your expectations
Set realistic expectations for the holiday season. Too often, depictions in the media about the “magic” of the holidays cause us to expect perfection and nonstop joy. But it’s unrealistic to expect constant happiness and holiday cheer from anyone, including yourself.
Take a good look at your expectations as you move into the holiday season, and make sure you’re not hoping for anything unrealistic. Let the holidays happen as they will, and try to enjoy whatever comes your way.
Seek Professional Support
For many people, the holiday blues go away on their own once the holidays have passed. But if you continue to struggle, therapy can help. With the help of a therapist, you can explore your thoughts and feelings about the holidays and navigate expectations and boundaries.
For severe cases of depression, your healthcare provider may suggest a combination of therapy and antidepressants as medication.
Find a therapist with Klarity
Klarity makes it easy and affordable to find a licensed mental health therapist, whether it’s for the holiday blues, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, or clinical depression.
Start exploring available providers by taking a free short self-assessment. Then, rely on Klarity to connect you with the best therapist based on your preferences and unique needs.
Frequently asked questions about holiday depression
Why are the holidays hard on mental health?
There are many reasons that the holidays are difficult on peoples’ mental health, including increased financial stress, high expectations for the season, social obligations, and feelings of loneliness.
What percentage of people get depressed during the holidays?
According to NAMI, around 64% of people experience the “holiday blues,” or feeling more depressed during the holidays.
How do I get out of a holiday mood?
Try limiting your alcohol intake, setting clear boundaries, connecting with loved ones, and exercising as much as possible. However, if you feel talking to someone can help or if your depression symptoms last past the holidays, consider seeking the help of a mental health therapist.
Who can help me overcome holiday depression?
A licensed mental health therapist can help you address and overcome holiday depression. Online therapy, or teletherapy, has many benefits and can make it easy to access the support you deserve without leaving the comfort of your home.