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Holiday Depression: It’s not always “the most wonderful time of the year”

Holiday depression

Holiday cheer. The season of giving. Peace on Earth. The idea that the holidays are the “most wonderful time of the year” is ingrained in our cultural lexicon. But for people with holiday depression, this time of the year is anything but jolly. 

What is holiday depression?

Holiday depression is defined as depression that pops up around the holiday season, occurring approximately from November through the New Year. 

Holiday depression is also known as “holiday blues,” and it can be experienced by anyone, including children and otherwise happy people who tend to get a little “down” at the holidays. People with an existing mental health condition may find the holidays particularly difficult. In fact, a study by the National Alliance on Mental Health revealed that 64% of people with a pre-existing mental health issue say the holidays make their symptoms worse. 

Holiday depression is different from seasonal affective disorder, which is depression brought on by lower levels of light during the cold, dark winter months. Though seasonal affective disorder and holiday depression are different conditions, they often co-occur and can exacerbate one another. 

What causes holiday depression? 

The holidays are a time rife with social expectations. We imagine that the “perfect holiday” includes buying and receiving gifts, making precious memories with family and friends, carrying on traditions, and getting into the “spirit of the season” with joyful activities and events. When these idealized visions of the holidays are out of reach (and they often are for many), holiday depression can creep in. Some causes of holiday depression include: 

  • Isolation – For people without many close family members or friends, the holidays can be feel particularly isolating. Watching others gather with groups of loved ones can magnify those feelings of loneliness. 
  • Financial strain – The push to give loved ones, especially children, a “Christmas to Remember” can cause severe mental and financial strain for families. The often-seen movie version of Christmas morning, with a child eagerly running down the stairs to see the mountain of presents “Santa” has brought, is a crushing standard to meet for many families. Parents who are not able to give their kids multiple expensive gifts are likely to feel versions of shame and inadequacy about their ability to provide – not just monetarily, but in terms of pleasant holiday memories as well.
  • Holiday grief – The holidays are a time for nostalgia, looking fondly back on Christmases past. For those who have lost someone dear to them, the holidays can feel especially lonely and purposeless. 
  • Family strife – The Norman Rockwell vision of the happy family gathered around the Christmas dinner table, laughing and getting ready to dive in to a feast of home-cooked family recipes, is plain unrealistic for many.  For people with family strife such as estranged loved ones, it can be a devastating reminder of what they do not have. 
  • Overwhelm – Packed schedules. Travel plans. Buying gifts. Attending parties. The holidays are typically chock full of additional tasks and activities on top of the everyday responsibilities of regular life. This can lead to stress, overwhelm and exhaustion that can bring on periods of holiday depression. 
  • Regret – The holidays signal that the year is coming to a close, which can lead people to look back on what they have not accomplished in the current year with regret. 

Symptoms of holiday depression 

Symptoms of holiday depression vary between person to person, and are similar to symptoms of generalized depression. The most recognizable symptom of holiday depression is persistent, recurrent feelings of sadness during the holiday season. Some people may experience periods of holiday sadness intermixed with times of upbeat mood and energy. Some signs you or a loved one might be experiencing holiday depression include: 

  • Fatigue 
  • Mental fog 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Feelings of loneliness 
  • Lack of pleasure in things that would normally be enjoyed  
  • Sleeping much more or less than usual
  • Irritability 
  • Eating much more or less than usual
  • Difficulty making choices 
  • Withdrawing from friends and family 

What to do if you’re experiencing holiday depression 

When it comes to treating holiday depression, you’ve got a lot of options. Your doctor may prescribe medications to help you cope during the stressful holiday season, but there are plenty of non-medical methods you can use to cope with your holiday depression. 

  • Talk to your therapist – Even though holiday blues let up after the New Year, they are likely rooted in deep-seated beliefs and experiences that are affecting other areas of your life, as well. Dealing with the foundational issues that are causing your holiday depression can help you have a better holiday season this year and in future years. 
  • Set reasonable expectations – Your life is not a Hallmark movie. Neither is anyone else’s. Gut check your expectations for the holiday season. If your goal is perfection, you’re likely to be disappointed. Focus on enjoying what you can while letting go of unreasonable expectations that are impossible to meet.
  • Keep boundaries – Saying “no” can be a helpful and healthy way to manage holiday stress. Don’t let yourself be overtaxed by commitments. You don’t have to “do it all.” 
  • Don’t isolate yourself – When we are feeling sad, the natural instinct is to hole up in our safe space away from others. But this is counterintuitive. Spending time in the company of others can help beat feelings of loneliness and help lift your mood. Can’t find a friend or family member to hang out with? Just get out in public. The presence of other human beings, even ones we don’t know, can be surprisingly cathartic. 
  • Make a budget – Overspending at the holidays is both a cause and an unhealthy coping mechanism for holiday blues. Make a budget for holiday expenditures and stick to it without guilt. A happy holiday doesn’t need to lead to devastating January bills. 

Need help with your holiday depression? 

Dr. Jeffrey Ditzell Psychiatry in New York City offers a wide spectrum of treatments and support for patients struggling with holiday depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, and more. Weekend and virtual appointments are available. Schedule your visit today, and take the first step toward a healthier, happier holiday season.

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