Holiday Depression: How to Beat the Holiday Blues

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Learn why people get depressed over the holidays and how you can overcome end of the year sadness

You made it through Thanksgiving with a smile. And now comes the holiday doubleheader of Christmas and New Year’s when most everyone seems to ooze good cheer and merriment. So what do you do when the world around you is wrapped in red and green and you’re feeling blue?

First, recognize that you’re not a Scrooge and you’re most definitely not alone. The “holiday blues” are real and much more common than you think. Second, be kind to yourself. Try not to chastise yourself for what you are and what you’re not feeling. And third, take a few minutes to read about some of the major causes and best remedies for the “holiday blues.”

What Is Holiday Depression?

While “holiday depression” is not a clinical diagnosis, the stress, anxiety and sadness of the season can contribute to a more long-term condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). And for those with mental illness, many say it becomes “a lot” worse (24%) or “somewhat” worse (40%) during the holidays.

Stressors unique to the holidays can include:

  • Spending more money than usual (or feeling pressured to do so).
  • Having more social or familial obligations than usual.
  • Pressure to maintain happiness or be in “the holiday spirit.”
  • Having more opportunities — and permission — to eat, drink and otherwise indulge.
  • Having more intense travel plans, accompanied by all the worries about being on time and not forgetting the presents and how weather will affect the trip.

The holidays can also dredge up other uncomfortable feelings around loneliness and loss.

What Causes Holiday Depression?

Loneliness

For people without a significant other, who don’t have family or who live far from family, the holidays can be especially tough. While longing for company, lonely people may isolate even more leaving them feeling even worse.

Remedies:

  • Resist the temptation to hunker down. Get up and get moving even if it’s only for a series of short excursions to your favorite café or bookstore. The goal is to be around people. Having a brief conversation or simply exchanging smiles lifts your mood says Kenneth Yeager, PhD, clinical director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
  • Find new ways to keep yourself occupied so you don’t dwell on your aloneness. Book a tour and see the city you live in through the eyes of enthusiastic visitors suggests psychotherapist and trauma expert Ross Rosenberg of Clinical Care Consultants in Arlington Heights, IL. Just being a part of an animated group can reenergize you. Or volunteer at an animal shelter or somewhere that gets you out of your head while keeping your spirit engaged and uplifted.
  • Call someone that you think might be feeling like you. “Take a chance,” says Rosenberg. You may find that person is happy to chat or share some time with you. “Let yourself feel the pleasure of connection without the fear of rejection,” Rosenberg adds.

Loss

If you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, the idea of experiencing happiness during the holidays might make you feel guilty or disrespectful to the memory of that person.

Remedies:

  • We all experience some degree of survivor guilt says Dr. Yeager. But it’s important to not let “expectations about how you should feel dictate how you actually feel,” he says. “Being respectful to those we’ve lost should include memories of good times together. A smile is just as loving as a tear.”
  • While you shouldn’t feel guilty, it’s OK to feel sad and to acknowledge to yourself and to others that you miss your loved one.

Missing Holidays Past

Memories and traditions are a big part of the holidays. If your current life circumstances aren’t the best, you may get stuck longing for the happier times in the past at the expense of the present.

Remedies:

  • Create new traditions. There are no hard rules for what your holiday should look like. If you’re worried that repeating an old tradition will make you sad, reinvent it for the present. No kids at home. Make that family cookie recipe for children stuck in the hospital.
  • And if it’s too difficult to stay where you are, give yourself permission to go somewhere that doesn’t hold any memories. Book a hotel in a town nearby or a city far away, plan a few activities, buy yourself a present and revel in the anonymity, suggests Rosenberg.

What are the Symptoms?

Post-holiday depression can manifest as more withdrawn, more irritable or more impulsive behavior. Changes in sleeping or eating — either doing more or doing less — are common signs of someone experiencing depression.

If you notice these changes in yourself or a loved one, seek the help of a medical or mental health professional.

How to Overcome Holiday Depression

Ultimately, beating the holiday blues is about staying “true to who you are,” says Dr. Yeager. That may mean saying “yes” to parties and gathering, knowing that you can always leave if necessary. It means respecting your limits without succumbing to self-isolation. It means giving yourself credit for being as merry as you can.

And, above all, it means recognizing and being grateful for all the little joys and moments of happiness in your life.

Dealing with Post-Holiday Depression

First, realize what is causing you to be blue. Do you miss the merriment of family and friends gathered around good food and good conversation? Are you grieving someone who couldn’t be with you, either because of a death or because they just couldn’t make it work around other obligations? Are you sad the holidays weren’t “as good” as ones before, either from childhood or simply when you had less to deal with?

Address your specific feelings with some of the above ideas, or those you come up with. Taking care of yourself — good sleep, healthful diet, physical activity and other forms of self-care — is also crucial.

Finally if, despite your best efforts, you are still constantly sad or anxious, have trouble sleeping, feel physically hurt or ill, or feel hopeless or helpless, contact a doctor or mental health professional.

Is Seasonal Depression a Factor in the Post-Holiday Blues?

Some people are more prone to feeling down or depressed in the darker, colder days of winter. Those diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood disorder associated with depression and related to light variations among the seasons, can exhibit symptoms including mood changes, sleep problems, lethargy, overeating and anxiety.

A diagnosis of SAD can be made by a medical professional after three consecutive winters of these symptoms if they are also followed by complete remission of symptoms in the spring and summer months. Treatments include spending time outdoors, phototherapy, and medication if indicated.

Margaret Jaworski

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