Although we often associate the holidays with family and connection, many people experience immense grief, loneliness, and stress during this season. Moreover, 64% of people with mental illness indicate that the holidays worsen their condition.1 Holiday depression can include sadness, isolation, and poor self-esteem. It can also accompany seasonal affective disorder, a condition that affects some people during the winter months.
Is Depression Common During the Holidays?
Despite what retailers and movies want you to believe, depression is relatively pervasive during the holiday season. However, statistics may not be entirely accurate. First, people may feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit their struggles with things like grief and loneliness during this time. This is particularly true if they feel cultural or familial pressures to “enjoy the season.”
Here is what the research shows about depression during the holidays:2,3,4
- 280 million people in the world experience depression. That’s 5% of the adult population.
- As many as 14% of adults in the US experience “winter blues,” which may or may not coincide with the holidays.
- 69% of people feel stressed by either their “lack of time” or “lack of money” when it comes to the holidays. In addition, over half feel worried about the pressure to give or receive gifts,
Can Someone Who Normally Does Not Suffer From Depression Be Depressed Over the Holidays?
Yes, people can feel depressed over the holidays, even if they don’t typically experience depression. This is because many people feel pressure to feel a certain way over the holidays. For example, they may believe they’re supposed to feel happy, loved, generous, or connected to others. But if expectations fall short, it can lead to feelings of sadness, anger, and uncertainty, which can trigger depression.
What Are the Signs of Holiday Depression?
Holiday depression can overlap with typical symptoms of depression. However, these symptoms are especially concentrated during the winter months. They may peak between October and December and gradually fade away after the new year (although some may experience post-holiday sadness during January). It’s important to note that depression is different than occasional sadness- it’s a multifaceted condition that can affect multiple areas of functioning.
Here are some potential signs that you or a loved one may be dealing with holiday depression:
- Increased sadness or apathy
- Agitation and frustration within interpersonal relationships
- Feelings of excessive guilt
- Overeating or excessive drinking
- Sleep problems (sleeping too little or too much)
- Physical complaints like headaches or stomach pains
- Mood swings
- Feeling particularly tense or anxious
- Losing interest in pleasurable activities or relationships
What Causes Holiday Blues?
Like all mental health conditions, there isn’t a single cause for the holiday blues. Instead, a combination of risk factors may increase one’s likelihood of experiencing this issue.
Some common causes of holiday may include:
- Preexisting history of depression or anxiety
- Family conflicts
- Financial stress
- Societal pressures around shopping, celebrating, and giving gifts
- Travel-related stress
- Significant changes in routine (causing one to neglect self-care)
- Previous traumas or losses surrounding the holiday season
Seasonal Affective Disorder vs. Holiday Depression
It can be challenging to tell the difference between seasonal affective disorder and holiday depression. After all, many symptoms overlap, and they both occur during the winter months. Holiday depression refers to a situational type of depression. It often occurs because people feel a combination of stress, sadness, and high expectations during the holidays.
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of clinical depression that isn’t inherently linked to past memories or stress. Instead, it is rooted in someone’s biology, and symptoms are often more severe and pronounced. Subsequently, they interfere with someone’s daily functioning.5 While holiday depression can be frustrating, the symptoms do not usually disrupt someone’s normal routine.
Are Some Conditions Affected by the Holiday Season More Than Others?
The holiday season can be challenging for anyone. But people with preexisting conditions of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and personality disorders may find this time of year especially stressful. Similarly, those with histories of eating disorders or substance use disorders may find it challenging to keep their recoveries on track during the holidays.
6 Tips for Coping With Holiday Depression
Holiday depression can be stressful, but practicing healthy coping skills can help improve your mood and minimize situational depression symptoms. It’s important to have an action-based plan to take care of yourself during this time of year.
Here are six practical tips for dealing with holiday depression:
1. Stick With Your Routine as Much as Possible
Try to maintain a regular schedule during the holidays. That means going to bed and waking up around the same time each day. Keep up with your usual exercise and eating habits. Engage in your regular chores and weekly commitments.
It’s important to be flexible, but it’s also crucial to respect keeping a sense of normalcy. Even if you’re traveling or trying to be more spontaneous, aim to ground yourself with a few predictable activities each day.
2. Say No
Unfortunately, many of us believe we must commit to every social engagement. But overextending yourself often results in more stress and resentment.
Instead, prioritize what feels most important to you. Furthermore, respect your threshold. While some people might love attending holiday parties every weekend night, it’s perfectly reasonable if that’s not your thing. Saying no frees you up to be more present and engaged for the things that matter most of all.
3. Reassess Your Expectations
No celebration is perfect, and no holiday season is perfect, either. Try to eliminate the “shoulds” when it comes to how you think you should feel or act during this time of year.
Furthermore, aim to be realistic with your loved ones. Chances are, someone will disappoint or frustrate you at some point. Rather than letting it ruin the entire day, try to embrace a more accepting approach. Remember that most people are just trying to do their best in a given moment.
4. Create Your Own Traditions
If you don’t like the usual rituals your family participates in during the holidays, consider switching it up. You’re entitled to make this season be whatever you want.
A tradition can be anything, but try to think of things that bring you joy and meaning. For instance, maybe you’ll commit to volunteering in the morning on Thanksgiving. Or, perhaps, you can plan a small road trip over winter break instead of hosting dinner at your house.
5. Create Exit Strategies
Certain people or events may trigger more sadness, anger, or anxiety. Preparing for this possibility in advance can help reduce holiday depression.
A good exit strategy means knowing when to leave an uncomfortable event or situation. Sometimes it entails simply walking away. Other times, it means enlisting a positive friend to reach out to when you feel overwhelmed. Either way, aim to have some kind of concrete plan in place. Even if you don’t use it, it’s still helpful to have a strategy.
6. Talk With a Therapist
Seeking support during this time can help you feel less depressed. Therapists understand the common struggles associated with the holidays. They are skilled in providing reassurance, guidance, and proactive coping skills for managing your stress.
Short-term therapy may be extremely beneficial during this time. Make sure to use a professional therapist directory to begin your search. Try to find a therapist with experience in treating depression and anxiety.
What Can Loved Ones Do to Support Someone With Holiday Depression?
If you suspect a loved one might be struggling, it’s most important that you validate their feelings and experiences, and not tell them to smile through their depression. Don’t discount what’s happening with cliches like, But it’s the holidays, or aren’t you glad we can all just be together?
Ask how you can support them during this time. If they aren’t sure, let them know that you are available to listen and that they can come to you with whatever they need. If they do ask for a specific request, see how you can best help them with it.
Do not try to one-up their feelings. Even if you relate to having depression yourself, don’t make the conversation about your experiences. Instead, focus on how you can best understand their unique circumstances.
Finally, it can be helpful to encourage them to seek treatment. Sometimes people don’t know the first step to take. If this is the case, consider asking your loved one if they are open to you helping them find a potential therapist referral.
Holiday depression may be a seasonal stressor. However, it can also be a symptom of something more serious, such as seasonal affective disorder or major depression. If your symptoms are impacting the quality of your life, it’s important to consider reaching out for help. Depression is treatable, but you may need support during this time.
For Further Reading
- Warmline: Peer-run, confidential support hotline.
- Crisis Text Line: Confidential, text-support with professional crisis counselors.
- National Institute of Mental Health: Shareable resources on depression.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: Maintaining mental health during the holiday season (and a pandemic).