“It’s the most wonderful time of the year … It's the hap-happiest season of all.”
The holiday season is often portrayed as a time of joy and celebration, but for many people, it can be a time of stress, sadness, and even depression. 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 feels this way during the holidays, you're not alone. We sat down with Parag Sanghvi, a licensed master social worker and therapist on the staff at Texas Health Springwood Behavioral Health Hospital, to understand where these feelings can come from and what can be done to help combat symptoms.
Reasons for Feeling Down
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.”
The holiday season's busy and rushed timeline can also add stress, making it challenging to balance work, personal activities, and self-care.
“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. “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.”
This leads us to another stressor that tends to crop up this time of year — financially affording the holidays, especially in a year when many budgets are already strained.
Factors contributing to financial stress during the holidays include the pressure to buy gifts, host gatherings, and participate in seasonal events. Additionally, comparison and unrealistic expectations, such as giving or receiving the "perfect gift," can also lead to increased financial strain. The National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts the 2023 holiday season will see record spending levels, with many consumers planning to spend $875 on core holiday items including gifts, decorations, food and other holiday-related purchases this year.
On top of spending more, shoppers also face difficulties from credit card debt. In Q3 2023, the average household credit card debt came in at $9,068, a 12.7% increase over Q3 2022, according to WalletHub’s data. Splurging during the holidays can quickly increase your financial stress, especially if you end up carrying a balance on your credit card into the next year.
Social media can exacerbate these feelings by creating a sense of inadequacy when comparing one's life to others' seemingly perfect holiday experiences.
“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.”
Additionally, an emphasis on spending time together can hit especially hard for those without a strong support system during the holiday season. A 2022 survey by ValuePenguin states that 55% of Americans experience holiday loneliness, with many reporting that their loneliness is worse than the previous year.
According to findings from the survey, members of the LGBTQ+ community face more holiday loneliness than any other demographic analyzed, with 76% experiencing the winter blues. LGBTQ+ Americans are more likely to cite poor relationships with family members as the reason for their loneliness. Gen Zers (75%) and single adults (65%) feel lonelier than their counterparts. Among those feeling lonely, the top reasons cited are not being around loved ones (41%), seasonal depression (37%) and grief (36%).
The pressure to be happy during the holidays can often backfire, causing feelings of isolation and depression.
“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.”
What to Be on the Lookout For
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 Feel Better
Experiencing low spirits during a time celebrated for its happiness can intensify negative feelings about yourself. You might feel ungrateful, disrespectful, unappreciative, or believe that something is "wrong" with you. However, Sanghvi suggests not blaming yourself for these feelings. Instead of feeling guilty, try a different approach and recognize and accept 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.”
Expressing your feelings in conversation not only validates them but also lets someone else understand your emotional state. The simple act of sharing what you are going through emotionally can help you to connect to others, helping to alleviate the sense of isolation, 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!)
Moreover, Sanghvi emphasizes the heightened importance during this season of maintaining healthy habits. This not only helps fend off common colds and illnesses that often emerge at this time but also safeguards your mental well-being.
This involves adopting a nutritious diet, ensuring adequate sleep, participating in regular exercise, steering clear of excessive tobacco, alcohol, and drug use, and moderating your exposure to the internet, television, and social media—especially if you feel overwhelmed by information overload. Even with a busier schedule than usual, make room for simple yet effective self-care practices, such as taking a walk, listening to favorite music, audiobooks, or podcasts, or indulging in a relaxing bath—whatever brings you joy.
Finally, Sanghvi underscores the significance of being realistic and honest with yourself and others, emphasizing that it can significantly alleviate the stress you might be putting on yourself during 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.”
The holidays can be a difficult time for some. If you or someone you know is struggling this holiday season, visit Texas Health Behavioral Health or call the help line at 682-549-7934, which is available 24/7.