Holiday Blues Amidst The Holiday Cheer: 6 Steps to Cope

By Lauren Karnowski, MA (in progress)

The holiday season is in full swing: Kids are excited to be done with school for the year, family get-togethers are being planned, and commercials and stores are full of cheery people selling some holiday spirit. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? Merry and jolly feelings abound! Well, if my sarcasm isn’t apparent, this isn’t always the case. In fact, feeling down, anxious, or stressed around the holidays is so common that there is a specific phrase that describes this situational change in mood: the “holiday blues.” So if you have noticed you tend to feel down or more tense during the months of November and December, you are not alone!

The holiday blues can feel different for different people and consist of a variety of symptoms that resemble depression. Change in appetite, fatigue, change in sleeping patterns, depressed mood, heightened stress, anxiety, irritability, low motivation, and not finding pleasure in previously enjoyable activities are some of the symptoms that can occur. These symptoms can also look similar to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a depression disorder that usually extends throughout the entirety of the fall and winter seasons – this is unlike the holiday blues that usually subside shortly after the new year begins.

Why do many people struggle with the holiday blues during what society portrays as a joyful time? Some may think that sadness and the holidays cannot possibly go together! There are actually several reasons why the holiday blues occur that make a lot of sense when considering what this time of year can bring up. Increased family time and get-togethers with extended family can cause mixed feelings due to mourning lost family members, having ongoing conflicts (like differing political opinions or views on a family matter), and realizing that family dynamics aren’t the same as they were in the past. Additionally, feelings of loneliness can amplify at this time if you are unable to be with family, are estranged from family, or don’t have a significant other or close family or friends with which to celebrate the season.

The hectic pace of life that seems to accompany the holidays also contributes to the holiday blues by throwing off sleep schedules and exercise routines, feeling pressure to attend every party or give your family the best holiday, and causing social exhaustion (especially if you are an introvert!). Having unmet expectations is another major reason for the holiday blues, which can take several forms including feeling like the holidays weren’t as magical as you thought they should be, feeling like you didn’t achieve all you wanted to over the past year, and feeling like your celebrations fall short compared to others’. Taking all these reasons into consideration, it seems like the holiday season may be the perfect winter storm to cause a change in mood!

If you struggle with the holiday blues, I hope you can take comfort in knowing that it makes sense why you feel this way. You may just need some extra support around the holidays, and there are several steps you can take to give yourself this support!

Here are six steps you can take to cope with the holiday blues:

1. Acknowledge and honor feelings of loss. Whether you are missing a loved one who has passed, grieving a relationship that ended, or wishing your family get-togethers were like they used to be, give yourself the space and permission to feel these losses. You are allowed to feel grief around the holidays, and maybe you can even find a way to honor your loss during your celebrations.

2. Find a balance between socialization and time alone. If all the holiday events leave you feeling like your tank is on empty, notice this feeling and fill up your cup in a way that is restorative to you. Taking some alone time to watch some shows or movies, read a book, do some yoga, or go on a walk can help you feel centered again. On the other hand, be careful not to isolate yourself too much. If you are unable to celebrate the holidays with family, seek out spending time with other loved ones. Maybe you can spend the holidays with a friend’s family, a group of friends, or at a community event.

3. Remember what matters. It is so easy to get caught up in stressing over having the most festive decorations, buying the best gifts for your loved ones, making the most scrumptious holidays meals, and hosting picture-perfect parties and dinners. This is stressful, and comparison culture can rob us of fully enjoying the holidays! Take a step back and remind yourself what really matters to you when celebrating the holidays.

4. Keep your routine as best as you can. Taking care of yourself physically greatly contributes to mood regulation, so it is important to keep up with your physical care if you struggle with the holiday blues. Although it’s tempting to over-indulge in alcohol, sweets, and other unhealthy foods during the holidays, consuming these in moderation will help regulate your mood and stress. Strive to keep a healthy routine of eating well, drinking plenty of water, exercising, and getting enough sleep over the holidays while still letting yourself enjoy your holiday favorites in moderation (eggnog and snickerdoodles, anyone??)

5. Volunteer. There are so many people in need, especially around the holidays, and helping others is a great tool to lift your own mood. Volunteering and helping others in need helps us shift our focus outside of ourselves, which often gives the distance that we need from our struggles to thrive. Check out your local soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or churches for volunteer opportunities. Maybe giving some holiday cheer to those in need will help you feel some holiday spirit as well!

6. Set realistic expectations. It’s easy to get carried away with wanting your holiday to play out like a picture-perfect Hallmark movie, but having such unrealistic expectations can set you up for inevitable disappointment. Although the holidays are a special time of year for a lot of people, they are also days just like any others throughout the year, meaning that mistakes can be made, accidents can happen, and people can let you down. We do not need to assign extra meaning to these inevitable life occurrences just because they take place on a holiday. Our holidays can still be special and fulfilling, even if that same uncle and cousin got into a political debate at dinner again! And your holiday can still have some holiday cheer, even if you struggle with the holiday blues.

You deserve to thrive during this tricky time of year. If you want more help coping with your holiday blues or if your symptoms continue into the new year, there are several therapists at The Center for Mindfulness & CBT who are available for appointments. We wish you a healthy holiday season and are here to help you achieve your goals!