During the holidays, many people feel like they’re on the outside looking in. While others seem to enjoy the festivities effortlessly, people who are dealing with holiday depression often feel sad, anxious, and exhausted.
If you’re feeling this way, you’re not alone. Holiday depression is a common condition with a wide variety of causes. Keep reading to learn more about why many people experience holiday depression and learn some tips to help manage it.
The Holidays Are a Time of Mixed Emotions
An oft-repeated urban legend says suicide rates in the United States surge during the holiday months of November through January. However, that’s not true; suicide rates peak during the spring and summer months.
Still, that doesn’t mean holiday depression isn’t a common occurrence. While public health experts haven’t studied holiday depression as much as related conditions like seasonal affective disorder, informal studies often indicate high rates of sadness and other negative emotions during the holidays.
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, one of the world’s largest research and consulting firms, completed a telephone survey in 2006 on behalf of the American Psychology Association (APA) in which more than half of respondents said they often felt fatigued, stressed, and irritable during the holidays. The survey also found that 38% of people reported higher stress levels overall during the holiday months.
However, in the same survey, more than 75 percent of respondents said they frequently experienced happiness and love during the holidays. These results suggest that the holiday season brings mixed and often conflicting emotions for many people, so you’re not alone if you’re juggling feelings of warmth and sadness at the same time.
Common Causes of Holiday Depression Include Grief and Financial Stress
Holiday depression often arises from a variety of factors. Some of the most common include:
- Grief: The holidays often spark reflection, which may include thoughts of loved ones who have died. These feelings are normal, and it’s important to give yourself time to grieve. However, if your grief is preventing you from feeling joy, accomplishing your goals, and otherwise living your life, it may be time to take proactive steps, such as seeing a licensed therapist or talking openly with friends and family about your feelings.
- Isolation: People with small social circles or who lack opportunities to socialize may feel left behind during the holidays. When you’re feeling isolated, it’s easy to withdraw even further. If you’re feeling alone, go online and search for social groups in your area. Whether it’s a walking club, a hobby group, or simply a “friend wanted” ad, you may find something or someone that will help you manage the pressures of the season.
- Financial Worries: Gift-giving, party planning, and social spending can all add put a significant strain on your finances during the holidays. If the holiday season consistently leaves you stressed and anxious over bills and other financial issues, consider working with a financial planner or debt management program. There are also numerous online resources designed to teach you how to budget effectively.
Positive Behaviors Can Help Manage Holiday Depression
An episode of holiday depression probably won’t go away overnight, but the following tips can help you manage your feelings and lessen your symptoms.
- Contact a Mental Health Professional: Many people with depression suffer alone and in silence because they believe no one can help. Mental health professionals are trained to recognize depression symptoms and help their patients manage it with proven techniques and therapies. Seeing a therapist or other mental health professional can seem like a big and scary step, but you’ll likely be surprised at how much progress you can make with their help.
- Mind Your Vitamin D: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a well-documented condition that’s related to holiday depression, and many experts believe it occurs because of lack of exposure to sunlight and the resulting vitamin D deficiency. Try to get outside for at least 20 minutes every day if possible. Of course, that’s easier said than done during a snowstorm or cold snap. Fortunately, using a vitamin D supplement and eating more foods rich in vitamin D, such as fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, and vitamin-fortified foods, can also help address vitamin D deficiency.
- Improve Your Diet and Exercise Habits: Your sleeping, eating, and exercise habits form the basis for your overall health and can have a major impact on mental health. Unfortunately, the cold weather, short days, and hectic schedules of the holiday season can break good habits and worsen bad ones. Resist the urge to splurge on holiday treats and try to stay active however you can, even if it’s just taking a few short walks throughout the day.
- Cut Back on Sugar: Sweets tend to be a permanent fixture during the holidays, but numerous studies have shown that both can worsen depression. One 22-year study published in the journal Nature in 2017 examined the effects of sugar intake on mental health. At the beginning of the study, none of the participants were being treated for mental illness. By the end of the study period, researchers found that male participants who ate more than 67 grams of sugar per day had rates of depression that were 23% higher than men who ate 40 grams of sugar or less.
- Spend Time in Nature: Getting outside not only helps with vitamin D deprivation but can bring peace of mind and a sense of communion with nature. You don’t have to enjoy the outdoors by yourself either. Bring a friend along for a walk and create a natural treasure hunt (like collecting five pine cones, two red stones, and so on). Afterward, if you’re feeling inspired, you can use the things you collect to make arts and crafts.
- Volunteer: Even if you’re struggling during the holidays, other people still need your help. The act of giving your time to those in need can improve your mood and self-esteem and put your own struggles into perspective. Consider volunteering your time at a food bank, soup kitchen, or other local organization that exists to help families and individuals in need.
- Start New Traditions: If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, switch things up. Start a new tradition that includes your friends and family. From ugly sweater parties to a night of stargazing, a little creativity can introduce new joy into your surroundings.
- Get Creative: Depression can easily create a negative feedback loop: you don’t feel like doing anything, which yields boredom, which, in turn, leaves plenty of time to dwell on negative thoughts and emotions. To break this cycle, start creating things. Begin a scrapbook, collect coins, sculpt, draw, paint, write — anything that keeps you moving and developing as an individual. Don’t worry about whether your creative efforts are “good enough.” Think of them as something that’s just for you. If you can’t decide what you’d like to work on, ask your friends for advice or search for inspiration online.
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Boden, J.M., & Fergusson, D.M. (2011, March). Alcohol and depression. Addiction, 106(5):906-14. DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03351. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Fergusson/publication/50303291_Alcohol_and_depression/links/59d69a16a6fdcc52aca7d052/Alcohol-and-depression.pdf
DiSalvo, D. (2017, September 2). The link between sugar and depression: What you should know. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/neuronarrative/201709/the-link-between-sugar-and-depression-what-you-should-know
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. (2006, December 12). Holiday stress [press release]. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2006/12/holiday-stress.pdf
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