For many people, the holiday season represents a time of joy celebrated by gatherings with friends and loved ones. But for others, it sparks sadness or stress, and it can bring on something even more serious.
In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, 38% of people say their stress increases during the holiday season, which can lead to depression, anxiety and increased substance misuse.
If you or a loved one has a tendency to feel this way around the holidays, it can be a confusing time. Additionally, you may even feel guilty for having these kinds of feelings around what’s supposed to be a joy-filled time. But it’s more common than you may think, says Parag Sanghvi, a licensed master social worker and therapist on the staff at Texas Health Springwood Behavioral Health Hospital. We asked him why someone may feel this way during the holidays and what can be done to help combat symptoms.
What’s Behind the Winter Blues?
The holiday season offers up a unique environment that can help contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. One main culprit has to do with the actual environment — the cold, overcast weather that is typical of winter.
“In winter months, there is typically less sunlight during the day and some people develop what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) with a seasonal pattern,” Sanghvi explains. “It is a clinical depression that can impact as much as 6% of the population, and is more prevalent in northern climates than southern ones. Some people develop depressive symptoms because the reduced exposure to natural light can impact our body’s neurochemical balance and rhythms.”
Another reason for the down feelings can be due to the season’s sometimes chaotic and rushed timeline.
“People are often busier around the holidays, and it can be stressful trying to balance work and personal activities, especially as both tend to ramp up around this time of year,” Sanghvi says.
Getting ready for the holidays, getting all your work projects to the finish line, and getting all of your holiday shopping done can take up a lot of time.
“People sometimes feel overwhelmed and don’t have enough time for self-care or to continue routines that have helped them achieve balance in their lives before,” Sanghvi adds.
That leads us to another possible contributing factor to those solemn winter blues — financially affording the holidays. It’s no secret to say that the holidays can often be a financially stressful time, with buying gifts, hosting friends and family, and spending money for events or things you wouldn’t normally spend money on (we’re looking at you, ugly sweater parties). During a time when so many people’s budgets have been tested, this year can add a new level of anxiety and stress as we head into the holiday season.
The next culprit is due to something many have most likely fallen victim to, especially in this social media-heavy world we live in — comparison and unrealistic expectations.
“People sometimes have unrealistic expectations and can feel letdown if something doesn’t meet those expectations, like a family get-together or work party, or giving/receiving the ‘perfect gift,’” Sanghvi says. “Additionally, people can engage in comparing their lives to others during the holiday season and feel that somehow their own life doesn’t measure up. People are always putting their best foot forward in holiday cards, social media posts and letters and it can make it seem like your own life is lacking in comparison.”
While it may be a bit taboo, Sanghvi says the importance placed on being with and around family during the holidays can also be a big contributing factor to negative feelings this time of year.
“There is usually more family time together during the holidays which can create the perfect environment for any old grievances and conflicts to be brought up,” he adds. “Additionally, if a loved one has passed away during the past year, spending time with family may bring up bittersweet memories, especially if family members spend time telling stories and reminiscing on this passed family member’s life. While the latter can come from good intentions, this can all be very challenging to deal with.”
It's important to also remember that some people don’t have family or a robust social support system and their sense of loneliness can also increase during the holiday season.
Lastly, Sanghvi says the pressure the season places on people to be happy can have the opposite effect.
“There’s always this pressure to have the ‘Holiday Spirit,’ and that can really be asking a lot of someone, especially if they’re already struggling with any of the previously mentioned reasons why many people struggle with negative emotions during this time of year,” Sanghvi says. “Sometimes you just may not feel as festive and joyful about the holidays as others in your life (for a variety of reasons) and it may be hard for you to talk about those feelings for fear of ruining the mood. This in turn can cause you to feel more isolated and alone, which can lead to depression.”
So, there can be a lot of contributing factors to why you may feel down this time of year. But what kind of symptoms should you be on the lookout for?
- Having low energy and feeling sluggish
- Feeling listless, sad, or down most of the day nearly every day
- Not having interest anymore in activities you used to enjoy
- Sleeping too much
- Overeating and weight gain due to having carbohydrate cravings
- Loss of motivation
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
- Having trouble concentrating
- Experiencing thoughts of not wanting to live
How to Overcome Negative Emotions
Feeling down during a time that is lauded as a joyous occasion can make you feel even worse about the way you feel. It may make you feel ungrateful, disrespectful, unappreciative, or that something is “wrong” with you. But Sanghvi says instead of guilt-tripping yourself for feeling this way, flip the script and acknowledge your emotions.
“Probably the most important thing a person could do is have a good grasp of exactly how they are feeling and recognize that those feelings are legitimate and must be paid attention to,” he explains. “Some people bottle up emotions or sweep them under the rug, but this tends to make the situation worse. So-called negative feelings like sadness, anger, and boredom exist for a reason and are telling you something that you need to listen to and address in a healthy manner.”
Talking about your feelings can help legitimatize them, while also clueing someone else into how you’re feeling. The simple act of sharing what you are going through emotionally can help you to connect to others and feel less alone, which can have a positive impact on depression and anxiety symptoms.
“Explain that this year you are just not feeling like yourself and need to take some time out to help yourself get back to feeling more like yourself. Remind others of your love and appreciation for them, but that you just want to deal with some things on your own,” Sanghvi explains. “Doing so helps others understand that your inability to ‘join the festivities’ has nothing to do with them or how you feel about them and that when you are feeling better you will re-engage and enjoy everyone’s company.”
If you think your negative emotions could be influenced by the weather, or SAD, Sanghvi says there are special therapy lamps available that can help mimic the sunlight (minus those harmful UV rays!)
“The lamps are designed to produce full spectrum light mimicking the sun and can be valuable in regulating your biological cycles,” he explains. “Sit in front of it daily for a set amount of time and you may start to notice your mood improving.”
Additionally, Sanghvi says it’s extra important this time of year to maintain healthy habits, not only help ward off those pesky colds and illnesses that tend to crop up around this time, but to also help protect your mental health.
That can look like eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, engaging in regular exercise, avoiding excessive tobacco, alcohol, and drug use, and limiting your exposure to the Internet, television, and social media, especially if you find yourself getting overwhelmed by information overload. Even though your schedule may be busier than usual, make time for simple, but effective self care, such as taking a walk, listening to your favorite music, audiobook, or podcast, or enjoying a hot bath — whatever brings you joy.
Last but not least, Sanghvi says being realistic and honest with yourself and others can go a long way in relieving any stress you’re placing on yourself this time of year.
“If you’re not feeling chipper during the holidays, be honest, transparent, communicative, and non-apologetic about what you are going through. Especially with yourself, recognize that you are human, and everyone has periods when they don’t feel great and need some time for self-nurturing,” he explains. “The holidays don’t have to be perfect in order to be enjoyable and valuable.”