How to Cope With Holiday Depression

Published July 26, 2022
sad woman looking out window during holidays

Have you ever felt down or had low energy during the holidays? Maybe you even wondered what happened to your holiday spirit? If so, you might have experienced what is known as holiday anxiety and depression, which can affect people in different ways.

This change in emotion during the holiday season is often referred to as the winter blues. It can cause people to feel stressed, fatigued, or even lonely for several months out of the year. Not only does it make it difficult for people to celebrate the holidays, but it affects a person's mental health and overall well-being.

Different Types of Holiday Depression

People may experience feelings of depression for weeks at a time during the winter months. For example, they may have difficulty sleeping, or experience constant thoughts of hopelessness. This can make it difficult for them to connect with friends and family, let alone feel merry and bright. There are different types of depression or sadness that someone might experience during this time.

Winter Blues

The winter blues, or the holiday blues, are the feelings of sadness, loneliness, or frustration that can accompany the holiday season. Although the 'winter blues' is not a medical diagnosis, it's a condition that psychology has recognized for quite some time. In fact, researchers started studying the winter blues in the 1980s after some people noticed that they feel down during the holiday season.

Although researchers have been studying the winter blues for quite a while, more research is needed to find the cause of this behavior change. Currently, researchers believe that the winter and fall season can affect a person's mood because there is less sunlight, the days are shorter, and the cold weather can restrict outdoor activity and not always be pleasant.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Sometimes symptoms of the winter blues can become more severe or appear more consistently every winter. The clinical term used to describe this behavior pattern is seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is classified as a type of depression. There are two types of SAD, a winter-pattern SAD and a summer-pattern SAD which occur in different seasons during the year. In winter-pattern SAD, symptoms usually start towards the end of fall and last until spring. In summer-pattern SAD, symptoms usually begin in the spring or summer months and then subside in the fall.

SAD can cause more serious mood changes in individuals, which can affect how a person thinks and acts. It can even impact their daily life because it can make even simple tasks seem daunting and draining.

Prevalency of Winter Blues vs. SAD

According to the National Institutes of Health, more people experience the winter blues, also known as subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder, than SAD itself. These include people that experience mild changes to their mood depending on the season.

SAD occurs in .5-3% of individuals around the world. However, it affects 10-20% of people that have major depressive disorder and about 25% of people with bipolar disorder. Not all people experience symptoms of SAD every year when the seasons change. For example, about 30-50% of individuals don't experience symptoms in recurring winters.

Only 10% of people with SAD experience the type that occurs in the spring and summer months. That means that 90% of people diagnosed with the condition experience winter-pattern depression. In addition, their research shows that people experience symptoms of SAD for about 40% of the year, which is a very significant amount of time for a person to not feel their best.

The Effects of Holiday Depression

Seasonal depression can affect people in different ways. Some people may experience several symptoms, while others may only experience a few. Researchers have investigated the experiences of those who are diagnosed with this type of depression and have found patterns in the symptoms and daily impact of the condition.

Seasonal Depression Symptoms

Some symptoms of seasonal depression include:

  • Changes in appetite that may cause weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling depressed or low
  • Feeling fatigued or having low energy
  • Losing interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Oversleeping
  • Social withdrawal

Seasonal depression shares many characteristics with general or major depression itself. However, people with winter-pattern SAD are more likely to experience symptoms of weight gain, increased appetite, social withdrawal, and oversleeping.

Daily Impact of Seasonal Depression

depressed and withdrawn man at holiday party with friends

Seasonal depression can affect people in a variety of ways. For example, a person experiencing seasonal depression may try to avoid social gatherings during the holiday season because they don't have the energy to socialize with others. Or, they may decide to show up to a party, but become easily fatigued with interactions, which can be frustrating for someone to experience.

In addition, if a person is experiencing difficulty concentrating, they might find it difficult to maintain the quality and quantity of their work at their place of employment. This can add to their feelings of stress and discomfort during the holiday season.

Mental Health Challenges During the Holidays

The holiday season can be a great source of happiness. However, it also brings with it several unique challenges that can cause people to feel stressed or low. If you experience depression during the holidays, you're not alone. In fact, this time of year can be particularly stressful due to so many deadlines, family obligations, and festivities being packed so tightly. The holiday season puts a lot on people's plates.

Increased Visits with Friends and Family

Spending time with family and friends can feel wonderful. However, it can also be overwhelming. During the holidays, more family members and friends come to visit to celebrate, which can be draining for many reasons. You might feel like you have to constantly play party host or feel pressure from wanting to keep your house clean in case someone stops by. And, if you host family dinners during the season, you can also feel the added pressure of cooking great food for a larger number of people than you are used to. These elements can add up and make a person wish that they could have some personal space.

Vacation Deadlines

Many people take vacation time during the holiday season, which can create a lot of stress at work. You may have deadlines that you need to meet before you leave the office, or be worried about whatever assignments will pile up by the time you get back. This can cause people to overexert themselves and load their schedule up with obligations that are beyond their bandwidth. In addition, it can be challenging for some people to not think about work when they are on vacation, which can be frustrating in and of itself.

Missing Loved Ones

During the holiday season, family and loved ones often come together to celebrate. For this reason, many people are reminded of how much they miss their loved ones that have passed away or that are no longer in their lives. This can cause people to feel sad, lonely, and isolated. And, it might also be frustrating to see others celebrate with their loved ones when you aren't able to do the same.

Overwhelming Schedules

Parties, movie nights, and family dinners can all be really fun. But the holiday season can jam-pack a person's schedule to the point that they feel stressed and fatigued. Many people might overexert themselves and go to family dinners or parties when they aren't really feeling up to it because they feel obligated and don't want to let their loved ones down. This also puts people in the difficult situation of having to choose between family and their own well-being.

Feeling Lonely

The holiday season is also a lonely time of year for many people who have lost loved ones, are separated from their families, or don't have as big of a social circle as others. This can cause people to compare the strength and number of their connections to those of others they see on social media or hear about at work when everyone returns and chats about what they did to celebrate. It can be an isolating time of year that reminds people of aspects of their life they wish they had more of.

How to Cope with Holiday Depression

If you experience holiday depression, or if the season feels a bit difficult for you to get through, it's okay. Many people experience the same thing. And, you shouldn't feel guilty about allowing yourself to feel your true feelings, even if others around you don't understand why the holidays make things more difficult for you. There are several strategies you can use to help yourself cope with whatever symptoms of the winter blues you are facing.

Practice Self-Care

drinking tea by Christmas tree

Self-care is the act of tending to your social, emotional, physical, and psychological needs. It's the process of caring for yourself and helping your overall well-being. Research shows that self-care can reduce stress levels, boost energy, and even reduce a person's risk of illness. It's an important way for people to take their mental health into their own hands. There's no right or wrong way to practice self-care. Find what feels good for you and explore ways to help yourself relax and boost your happiness. Some ways to practice self-care are:

  • Eat when you're hungry.
  • Rest when you're tired.
  • Savor your favorite tea, coffee, or cocoa.
  • Schedule some alone time.
  • Take a relaxing bath.
  • Take breaks whenever you need them.
  • Try a calming lavendar face mask.

Brighten Up Your House

During the winter months, there's less sunshine throughout the day, which is one reason why psychologists believe people experience the winter blues. In fact, to remedy the lack of natural sunlight, mental health professionals often use light therapy to treat symptoms of SAD.

Light therapy involves exposing people to bright lights through lamps for short periods of time. Studies show that it is effective in reducing symptoms of SAD, and that a person can feel improvements in their mood in as little as an hour. You can purchase a light therapy lamp and keep it in your home. Prices of therapy lamps range anywhere from as little as $20 to over $100. You can also try to brighten up your house using the lights you already have by placing a lamp, candles, or holiday lights in areas of the house that you use to unwind.

Get Outside and Get Moving

Psychologists believe people become depressed during the holiday season because they feel confined to their homes due to the cold weather and shorter days filled with less sunlight. This can cause people to feel isolated and low.

One way to break this pattern is to go outside, enjoy nature and fresh air, and engage in physical activity. Studies show that exercise can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, increase energy levels, and even uplift your mood. Bundle up so that you stay warm, and find an activity that you enjoy that will get you moving. Some ways to get moving this winter are:

  • Build a snowman or make snow angels if you're in an area where it snows.
  • Find an ice skating rink near you.
  • Head to the park and look at the changing leaves.
  • Put up your holiday decor.
  • Take a walk around your neighborhood and look at decorations.

Start a Nighttime Routine

Getting a good night's rest can improve a person's mood, boost cognitive function, and increase immune health. Although some people that experience the winter blues tend to sleep for longer periods of time than they regularly would, that doesn't mean that they are getting good quality sleep. And, some people find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep due to their symptoms.

One way to help ensure that you truly get a good night's rest is to create a nighttime routine and improve your sleep hygiene. Give yourself about 30 minutes to wind down before you head to sleep. Everyone's nighttime routine will be different, just find what feels like a good fit for you. Some ways to practice sleep hygiene are:

  • Avoid using screens at least 30 minutes before bed.
  • Dim your lights or turn on soft lighting in your room when you start to wind down.
  • Do your best to not drink coffee or caffeinated drinks in the afternoons or evenings.
  • Make your sleep environment cozy by choosing soft sheets, warm blankets, and comfy pillows.
  • Refrain from drinking alcohol before bed.
  • Try to go to sleep and wake up at around the same time each day.

Give Yourself Some Space

woman reading book by Christmas tree

If the constant family visits, dinner parties, and get-togethers start to feel overwhelming to you, then give yourself some space. You don't have to attend every event on your social calendar, especially if you aren't feeling up to it. Maybe what you would benefit more from is a chance to rest, practice a self-care activity, or cuddle up with your favorite book. It can be difficult to turn down invitations to events, especially from loved ones. However, if you explain to them that what you really need is a break from all of the festivities, they'll understand. It's important that you take time for yourself and listen to your own needs.

Lean On Loved Ones for Support

If you don't feel like taking some space would help serve your needs, then you might be looking for a sense of support during this challenging time. Reach out to loved ones and tell them how you are feeling. It might feel validating just to share your experiences with someone who cares about you and your well-being. Together you may even be able to come up with a plan for how your loved ones can best support you at this time. You can set boundaries, establish goals, and brainstorm ways to support your mental and emotional health.

Reach Out to a Healthcare Professional

One way to learn more about your symptoms and ways to cope is to talk to your healthcare professional. They may refer you to a therapist or different guide in the field of mental health that can offer more support. In addition, a mental health professional may also help you discover whether you are experiencing the winter blues, or if you are experiencing SAD. Together, the two of you can make a personalized plan to help you cope in ways that feel right for you.

It can be extremely difficult to experience the winter blues during the holiday season. Especially when it might seem like everyone else around you is enjoying the festivities. It's important to check in with yourself throughout the season to get a better sense of your social and emotional needs. It's okay to take space during the holidays and give yourself time to focus on your own well-being. Sometimes you need to put yourself first, and there's no shame in that. And it's okay if the best part of the holiday season is that you simply made it through it.

How to Cope With Holiday Depression