Holiday Blues: How To Manage Seasonal Depression

The holiday season is often seen as a time of joy, family gatherings, and celebrations. However, it’s important to recognize that not everyone shares in this festive spirit. For some, this time of year can be challenging, filled with feelings that are less about joy and more about coping with stress or sadness.

This lesser-discussed aspect of the holiday period is known as the Holiday Blues, a term that many might not recognize, but some will certainly feel. It’s a temporary experience of feeling down or anxious during the holidays, and it’s more common than many people think.

Understanding the Holiday Blues is not just vital for personal well-being but also crucial in the context of workplace safety. Mental health plays a significant role in maintaining a safe and productive work environment, especially during high-stress periods like the holidays.

In this article, we examine the nature and causes of the Holiday Blues, offering insights to improve well-being and safety in our personal and professional lives during the holiday season.

What are the Holiday Blues?

When we talk about the ‘Holiday Blues,’ we’re referring to a range of emotions that can surface during the festive season. This might include feelings of sadness, stress, or a sense of loss. Unlike clinical depression, which is a diagnosable condition characterized by persistent and pervasive feelings of deep sadness, the holiday blues are often temporary and triggered by the specific stresses of the season.

These feelings are common and can be influenced by the shorter days and longer nights, the social and financial pressures of the season, or personal reflections that the end of the year often brings. It’s normal to have ups and downs, and the holiday blues are a natural response to the sometimes overwhelming demands of this time of year.

It’s important to understand that the holiday blues are situational. They typically begin around November and taper off after the holiday season ends. This is a key distinction from more serious mental health conditions, which can occur at any time and are not limited to a particular season.

Common Causes

The causes of the holiday blues are as diverse as the people who experience them, but there are some common factors that can contribute:

  • Family Dynamics and Expectations: The holidays can intensify stress from complex family relationships, as well as from the lack of family presence due to various circumstances.
  • Grief and Trauma: Those mourning the loss of a loved one may find the holidays particularly difficult, as the sense of absence can be more acute.
  • Social Stressors: There’s often a perceived need to join in with holiday activities, which can be stressful for those who feel out of step with the festive spirit.
  • Unrealistic Expectations: The idea that the holidays should be perfect can create a feeling of inadequacy when things inevitably don’t go as planned.
  • Isolation and Loneliness: For those who are physically alone or feeling disconnected, the emphasis on social gatherings can heighten feelings of loneliness.
  • Financial Strain: The costs associated with gifts and celebrations can lead to worry and stress for those on a tight budget.
  • Dietary and Schedule Disruptions: Changes in eating habits and routines during the holidays can impact both physical and emotional well-being.

Recognizing the Signs

Being able to spot the signs of the holiday blues is crucial for understanding when to offer support or seek help. These symptoms can be subtle and may be mistaken as simply feeling “off” during the holiday season:

  • Mood Changes: A person may seem less cheerful than usual, exhibit low mood, or show a lack of enthusiasm for activities they normally enjoy.
  • Changes in Appetite or Sleep: Overeating or not eating enough, trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much could be indicators of emotional distress.
  • Irritability: Shortness of temper, especially in situations that one would typically handle well, can be a sign of underlying stress.
  • Anxiety: An increased sense of worry or unease about holiday events or obligations is common.
  • Feelings of Worthlessness: Expressions of self-doubt or unwarranted guilt about not doing enough or being enough during the holidays.
  • Concentration Difficulties: Trouble focusing on tasks or making decisions could also be a symptom.
  • Substance Abuse: Turning to alcohol or other substances more frequently as a coping mechanism for holiday stress.
  • Loss of Interest: Withdrawal from social interactions and a general disinterest in participating in holiday events or traditions.

Communication Tips

Communication plays a vital role in supporting someone who might be going through the holiday blues. It’s about listening, offering support, and being present. Here are some practical tips on what to say and what not to say:

  • What to Say:
    • “I’ve noticed you’ve seemed a bit down lately. Want to talk about it?”
    • “If you’re not up for the holiday activities, it’s okay to take a break. How can I support you during this time?”
    • “I’m here for you if you need someone to listen, any time, no judgment.”

These statements are open-ended and offer support without pressuring someone to act in a way they’re not feeling up to. It’s about giving them the space to share their feelings and assuring them that their feelings are valid.

  • What Not to Say:
    • “Cheer up! It’s the holidays, you should be happy.”
    • “It’s all in your head. Just focus on the good things.”
    • “You always get like this around the holidays.”

These types of comments can feel dismissive and may inadvertently minimize the person’s feelings. They imply that the person has a choice in how they feel and that they’re choosing to be unhappy, which is not the case with the holiday blues.

Practical Support Strategies

When it comes to providing support to someone dealing with the holiday blues, actions often speak louder than words. Here are some practical ways to offer assistance:

  • Offer to Help with Holiday Preparations: Sometimes the logistics of holiday events can be overwhelming. Offering to assist with shopping, cooking, or decorating can alleviate stress.
  • Be a Supportive Presence: Simply being there for someone can be comforting. Spend time with them, whether it’s for a quiet coffee or a walk in the park.
  • Encourage Small Gatherings: Instead of large parties, suggest smaller, more intimate gatherings. These can feel less daunting and more manageable.
  • Help Them Honor Lost Loved Ones: If grief is a factor, help them find ways to honor the memory of those they’re missing, such as lighting a candle or sharing favorite stories.
  • Give the Gift of Time: Sometimes the best gift you can give is your time. Offer to take on some of their responsibilities, allowing them some breathing room.
  • Listen Without Trying to Fix: Be a good listener. Let them talk about their feelings without jumping in to offer solutions.

Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries is essential for maintaining mental well-being, especially during the holidays when the pressure to participate in every activity can be overwhelming. Here’s how to approach it:

  • Be Clear About Your Limits: It’s okay to decide how much you can handle in terms of socializing, hosting, and attending events. Communicate your limits to others respectfully.
  • Practice Saying No: It’s not necessary to attend every gathering or meet every demand. A simple, “Thank you for the invitation, but I can’t make it,” is sufficient.
  • Prioritize Your Needs: Give yourself permission to prioritize your own needs without feeling guilty. This might mean taking a quiet evening to yourself instead of another holiday party.
  • Limit Time with Stressful Individuals: If certain individuals or settings are particularly draining, it’s okay to limit the time you spend there or with them.
  • Manage Expectations: Let friends and family know that while you may participate in some traditions, you might skip others this year.

By setting and respecting your own boundaries, you encourage others to do the same, which can lead to a more enjoyable holiday season for everyone.

Self-Care and Coping

Self-care is a key strategy for managing the holiday blues. It involves deliberate actions taken to maintain physical, mental, and emotional health:

  • Maintain Routines: Where possible, stick to your regular routines. Consistency with sleep, meals, and exercise can provide a sense of stability amidst the chaos of the holidays.
  • Mindfulness and Relaxation: Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can reduce stress levels. Even a few minutes a day can make a difference.
  • Physical Activity: Regular physical activity is not only good for your physical health but also boosts endorphins, which can improve mood.
  • Limiting Alcohol and Sweets: While it’s tempting to indulge, moderation is key as excessive consumption can worsen mood swings and energy levels.
  • Allocating Downtime: Ensure you have time scheduled for relaxation and activities you enjoy, which can act as a buffer against holiday stress.

Professional and Community Resources

Sometimes, self-care and support from friends and family may not be enough, and professional help could be necessary. Here are some resources and avenues for support:

  • Mental Health Professionals: Consider seeking help from a therapist or counselor who can provide strategies and support for managing the holiday blues.
  • Support Groups: Many communities offer support groups for those dealing with stress, grief, or loneliness during the holidays. These groups provide a space to share experiences and coping strategies.
  • Online Resources: Websites and online forums can offer tips for managing stress and depression during the holidays. They can also connect you to a broader community of individuals facing similar challenges.
  • Hotlines: For immediate assistance, there are mental health hotlines that offer support and guidance, especially during times of crisis.
  • Workplace Resources: Some employers provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that include counseling services and mental health support.
  • Community Centers: Local community centers often host events and activities that can offer a sense of belonging and an opportunity to meet others during the holiday season.

Encourage those who are struggling to reach out for help, and if you’re the one experiencing the holiday blues, don’t hesitate to seek support. Remember, it’s okay not to feel festive and joyous all the time. It’s okay to take a step back, to rest, and to prioritize your mental health.

Acknowledgments and Contributions

Tim Neubauer, MS, CSP, founder of Exceed Safety, brings over five decades of experience in workplace safety training and content development. His deep passion for mental health, particularly in the workplace, complements his extensive safety expertise. Tim is committed to integrating mental health awareness into safety practices, recognizing the profound impact it has on overall wellbeing in the industry.

Jennifer L. Landon, M.Ed., serves as the Vice President of Education and Workforce Development for Associated Builders & Contractors NH/VT. As the founder of Your Grief Matters, LLC, Jennifer is a Certified Grief Educator & Coach, Certified Construction Suicide Prevention Trainer, Mental Health First Aider, and Recovery Friendly Workplace Advocate, dedicated to enhancing mental health awareness and support in the construction industry.

Help Texts is a unique, text-based grief and mental health support service, delivering personalized messages twice a week to provide expert, safe, and non-judgmental support directly to phones worldwide. Available in 20 languages, their comforting, validating, and educational messages are crafted by real people, drawing on expert wisdom and therapeutic techniques. Founded by Emma Payne, Help Texts represents a collaboration aimed at making mental health and grief support easily accessible to all​.

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