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Managing the holiday blues and staying socially connected
As the year draws to a close, the ever-present sound of holiday music suggests that it’s the “most wonderful time of the year.” This isn’t true for everyone, though — many people end up experiencing a sense of sadness, loneliness, and anxiety called the holiday blues.
If we don’t address these feelings, they can easily become overwhelming. Below you’ll find what causes the holiday blues, what the symptoms are, and how you can manage them to have a more enjoyable holiday season.
What are the holiday blues?
The holiday blues, also called the winter blues, are feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness that happen during the holiday season. They can be difficult to manage because this time of year is associated with joy and celebration. If our feelings don’t line up, it can make us feel even more alone.
However, the truth is, many people face this struggle. According to one survey by the American Psychological Association, 38% of respondents said that their stress levels increase during the holidays. Even more surprising is that just 8% of those surveyed said they felt happier.
What causes the holiday and post-holiday blues?
If you or someone you know is struggling with the holiday blues, you are definitely not alone. But why is it so common?
Family commitments, social events, gift buying, and other holiday activities are fun. But it’s no surprise that a busy schedule and unrealistic expectations can lead to financial stress, feelings of anxiety, and exhaustion.
The holidays can also bring up a painful sense of loss. Whether you miss loved ones who have passed away or are nostalgic for children who’ve grown up, this time of year can lead to unique feelings of grief.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is also commonly linked to holiday sadness. As the seasons change, we are exposed to less sunlight. This can disrupt sleep patterns and reduce the serotonin we get from the sun’s vitamin D. That can make holiday stress feel a lot worse than it might otherwise.
Finally, if you’re already suffering from a mental health condition, the holiday blues may be extra intense for you. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people living with a mental illness feel like their conditions get worse during the holidays. It’s extra important for these individuals to seek support during this time of year.
Symptoms of holiday blues
When it comes to the holiday blues, it’s important to know the signs. Whether you’re worried about a loved one or thinking about yourself, take a look at these common symptoms of the holiday blues.
If you constantly feel on edge during the holiday season, it might be related to the winter blues. The holidays can make us worry about the future — for example, “What do I need to accomplish by next year?” Not to mention, the seemingly endless parties and events can trigger social anxiety.
3. Depressive feelings
If you have the holiday blues, you might be dealing with a sense of sadness that you just can’t shake. Maybe you don’t want to get out of bed or feel numb even when you participate in holiday activities.
So how do you know if it’s holiday depression, or something more serious, like clinical depression? Typically, major depression is diagnosed based on the length of time you have symptoms and how much those symptoms impact your daily life. If you’re concerned about your depression, it’s best to see a behavioral health specialist.
If you or someone you love is socially isolating, it’s an almost surefire sign of the holiday blues. You might avoid holiday cheer by saying no to social invitations, decline phone calls, or take a break from social media. No matter how much people reach out, you just don’t want to say yes.
5. Changes in appetite
It’s common for the holidays trigger overeating or undereating. Many of us grew up taking comfort in food, especially festive food like Thanksgiving turkey. The problem is turning to food for distraction or relief. It might take your mind off your negative thoughts temporarily, but it won’t last for long.
6. Excessive drinking
Office parties and uncomfortable family gatherings are notorious for heavy drinking. Drinking cocktails with your friends is part of the fun of the holidays — however, if you find yourself excessively drinking multiple nights a week, you might be using alcohol as a form of escape. It’s important to recognize this before it becomes a substance abuse problem.
5 ways to manage the holiday blues
The holiday blues might be unavoidable, whether it’s due to a preexisting mental health condition or tense family dynamics. The good news is that you can learn to manage your symptoms and boost your mood with these five healthy habits.
1. Make time for self-care
Put time on your calendar at least once a week to focus on you. Whether that’s taking a bubble bath, reading a book, or binging holiday movies alone, this time will help you feel more present throughout the rest of your week. You can also consider requesting PTO or taking a vacation to restore some of your energy.
2. Find your own way to celebrate the holidays
If you isolate yourself, you’re only going to magnify your symptoms. Pretending that the holidays aren’t happening can lead to more frustration and anxiety. A better route is to think about which holiday celebrations you actually like.
Maybe that’s wandering through your city’s holiday market with a hot chocolate. Or maybe you love making Christmas cookies with your friends. If nothing from your past sparks joy, you can always try creating some new traditions.
3. Eat and drink in moderation
For some people, the holidays are enjoyable because it’s a free pass to eat and drink as much as they want. Unfortunately, too much sugar and alcohol can lead to inflammation, low energy, heartburn, and digestive problems. That will only make your holiday blues worse.
Instead, try maintaining a balanced diet. For example, during the week you can focus on cooking healthy foods and avoiding alcohol. Then, when it’s time for a holiday party, give yourself permission to enjoy a few cookies. Eating more healthy foods can boost your mood, so moderation will be worth it.
4. Get outside
The winter means shorter days, less sunshine, and for many people, seasonal affective disorder. But remember, the winter doesn’t mean there’s zero sunshine — you might just have a shorter timeframe to take it in.
Consider how you can rearrange your schedule to get out of the house during the day. Can you take a break from work to fit in an afternoon walk? If not, you can at least make getting outside a priority on the weekends. Taking in the sun out will do great things for your energy levels and holiday blues.
5. Say “no” more often
The holidays can demand a lot out of you, whether it’s your finances, attention, or time. Unfortunately, saying “no” during the holidays isn’t easy — we might feel guilty for not attending celebrations, not buying enough gifts, or not having enough “holiday cheer.”
Your “no” might make some people upset, but if you’re miserable because you said “yes” anyway, then no one will be happy. On the other hand, though, your loved ones might be supportive when you explain how you’re struggling. Either way, when you set boundaries, you protect your mental health — and that’s what is most important.
How to offer social support during the holidays
Staying connected socially is essential to well-being, so supporting struggling friends and family might just be the best holiday gift you can give them.
But why is connection so important? BetterUp Labs research on resilience shows that social support:
Significantly impacts one’s ability to be resilient in the face of uncertainty
Contributes to overall well-being and mental health
Is important for sustaining high performance at work
Strong social connections are one of the best ways to manage the holiday blues. Here are a few ways you can be there for loved ones who are going through a tough time:
Plan a holiday party: Maybe your best friend is anxious about the holidays but still wants to celebrate. Can you support them by throwing a relaxed get-together, full of people they’re comfortable around? If a party is too much, you can also plan a special activity, like a visit to see your city’s holiday light displays.
Listen more: Sometimes the simplest way to show compassion is to lend an ear. It’s worth asking a follow-up question to “How are you doing?” Being available to support and just listen can have an incredible impact on another person’s well-being.
Manage your assumptions: It’s easy to operate off of assumptions about people’s lives and their struggles. Be mindful that many people mask their struggles. Make space for your loved ones to feel safe sharing their authentic experiences and stay vigilant to keep your assumptions in check.
Practice empathy: What struggles might your loved ones be facing? Keep in mind, one person’s suffering has no bearing on the reality and validity of another person’s. Comparative suffering is dangerous but empathy is the cure.
Getting help for the holiday blues and seasonal depression
Sometimes, the holiday blues are too much to handle on your own. Here are a few resources to help you get some extra support:
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a help line (800-950-6264) and various programs to support people affected by mental illness.
American Psychiatric Association (APA) can help you find a psychiatry professional and get support for your mental health condition.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) offers education and resources to people struggling with these mental illnesses. They also have a directory to help you find a therapist.
Mental Health America (MHA) offers a large directory of resources. Through national affiliates, they also offer support groups for people struggling with mental health.
Nothing in life lasts forever — especially the holidays. It’s okay to admit that this is a tough time of year and eagerly await more pleasant times. In the meantime, focus on self-care and prioritize the connections that matter most to you.