Holiday Depression

Story by Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D.

The “Holiday Season” is generally acknowledged to be the time between Thanksgiving and New Year. Every year the Holiday Season seems to lengthen. Just a few years ago, it seemed to be the time between Halloween and New Years. Many people that I know report that they are already feeling holiday stressed and some are feeling “holiday depressed”— already!  

Everyone seems to know and expect that if you are inclined toward depression that it will get worse during the holiday season. The “Holiday Blues”, which is different from clinical depression, seems to be a culturally expected and anticipated phenomena. Lots of causal explanations for this uptick in depressive episodes and worsening symptoms are expounded upon in social media, traditional journalism, and folklore.  

Some of the most common explanations for holiday depression involve unmanaged stress, unresolved grief, unreasonable expectations and comparisons, and loneliness. Stress can become unmanageable as the increasing demands for more time, energy, money, compassion, and other resources don’t match our perceived resources to handle these extra demands. An increase in self-care behavior is called for. Instead, for many people, daily structure, routine, and self-care are the first thing to go.  

Holiday spending is a major source of anxiety for many people, and often a budget buster. In the midst of wearing the plastic off those credit cards, an underlying dread of bills coming due, color and offset any joy of picking out just the right gift. And people who don’t have the financial resources, or refused to go into debt for gift giving, risk disappointment and disapproval from others.

Holiday depression is often associated with grief. An absence of something or someone safe, familiar, or loved is constantly reminded. Old and recent losses, including death, divorce, abandonment of loved ones recall the pain of loss. The holidays are also a time when people self-reflect, looking backward or forward about missed opportunities, mistakes made or anticipated. They ruminate on choices they have made and “what-if” themselves into despair.  Many people grieve not just the people and circumstances in their lives, but the perceived loss of what they never had, but “should have” had.

For many people living alone, the holidays bring about a feeling of loneliness. Even though they often feel content with a solo lifestyle, stereotypical notions of what the holidays are supposed to be like, (e.g. the Hallmark made for television holidays movies), create an unrealistic standard of comparison, leading to sadness and disappointment.  We are disappointed with the people we usually tolerate or accept, when they don’t manifest magical holiday personality characteristics and behavior.

Holiday depression is not the same as Depressive disorder.  An onset of depression symptoms around the holidays will often go away after the holidays and things settle down to their normal routine. This would be “Holiday Depression”or the “Holiday Blues.” Depression symptoms of loss of interests, inability to experience joy, unusual fatigue/low energy, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, despair, focus/concentration/attention difficulties, social isolation and withdrawal, sleeping difficulties, and changes in appetite could signal clinical depression.  Thoughts of suicide or persistent thoughts of death call for immediate evaluation from a mental health professional.  “Seasonal Affective Disorder” is also a clinical condition where you experience an onset or worsening of symptoms of depression that occurs in the fall, and goes away in the spring or summer.

My recommendations for reducing and managing holiday depression symptoms are these:

  1. Step up your efforts at self-care. Eat right, exercise, get enough rest and sleep, maintain normal structure and routines.  
  2. Make a conscious effort to reduce your stress. Slow down, identify your priorities, replace worry with pro-active problem solving.  Identify your “real” holiday values and make your holiday behavior match those. If stressed out about money, set and maintain a reasonable budget. Give up unreasonable expectations about being superhuman and being able to get it all done. Give up unreasonable expectations of others. They are the same people they were before the holidays.
  3. If you are grieving, grieve. Talk about it. If you are stuck in grief, where you can’t seem to move on, the intensity of your grief does not seem to diminish over time, or if your grief seems to be negatively impacting various aspects of your life, get some help to work through it.
  4. Connect socially with the people who build you up, energize you, or comfort you. Reduce the amount of time you spend with others who bring you down.  Learn and practice assertiveness so that you can consciously decide how you spend your resources in time, energy, emotions, and money.

Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist and drug addiction counselor in private practice in Stillwater, OK.  Her website has additional information about holiday stress and depression,