For most people, the holiday season is a time of happiness and celebration. Even the stress of finding the perfect gifts and planning a full-course meal goes away when the entire family gathers together around the Christmas table. However, this is not the case for everyone. 

The holidays can be an emotionally exhausting time, leading to feelings of anxiety and depression, even for people that don't necessarily suffer from a known mental condition. The phenomenon is sometimes called holiday blues, and even though it is not an officially recognized disorder, it does not mean it is something to be ignored. 

Holiday depression can happen due to a number of factors, including financial stress, unrealistic expectations, as well as taking on too many responsibilities. This can lead to insomnia, overeating, or undereating, as well as excessive consumption of intoxicating substances such as alcohol. 

Feeling blue during the holidays – why does it happen?

If the holiday season starts getting the best of you, it does not necessarily mean you have an underlying mental disorder ready to arise. In most cases, it's the pressure we feel from the outside world that causes our inner world to tremble. 

As the year ends, you may find yourself reflecting over the past twelve months and experiencing feelings of regret over what could have been. Maybe there are goals you did not achieve or expectations you think you did not meet and you would have felt so much more accomplished if you did. These high hopes can quickly turn the last month of the year into something rather dreadful than joyful. Keep in mind that this type of seasonal sadness does not only affect adults, but children and especially teens as well. 

Some possible causes for feeling anxious during the holidays include:

  • Tiredness or burnout after a challenging year
  • Financial stress and the burden of stretching your budget to cover gifts for those you love
  • Longing for the holidays of the past
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • The stress of having to cope with your extended family, especially if you don't necessarily get along

Holiday blues, or something else?

While the holiday blues is not recognized as an official psychiatric condition, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is and should be treated very seriously. 

SAD is characterized as a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern and usually starts occurring once the days get darker and shorter. That is because SAD is associated with a disturbance in one's normal circadian rhythm due to lack of daylight.

At night, the pineal gland produces melatonin, a substance that is responsible for making you drowsy and sending you to sleep. It is, in simple words, what happens with us once the sun sets. When light hits our eyes in the morning, it tells our body it's time to wake up so that it stops producing melatonin. When days get shorter, our body is tricked into believing it should go to sleep much sooner, which is why these disturbances occur. 

Symptoms for the holiday blues and SAD are quite similar, but what is different is how long they last. While the holiday blues usually starts at the end of November and ends after the new year, SAD can last for the duration of autumn and winter. 

Some of the most particular symptoms for SAD are:

  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Drastic changes in appetite, which can include weight loss or gain
  • Lack of energy and fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Feeling worthless or excessively guilty

Coping with holiday depression

In a world where mental affections are as normalized as physical affections, the obvious thing to do if you feel the holiday season is less and less easy to deal with is talking to a therapist. 

Contrary to what some people believe, therapy is not just for individuals battling depression, PTSD, social anxiety, or a range of personality disorders. A therapist is here to help those who may feel lost understand where those feelings are coming from and find healthy ways to cope with them. Talking to a specialist will also help determine if what you are dealing with is the holiday blues, seasonal affective disorder, or something else entirely. 

In addition to seeking professional help, there are some small adjustments to your daily habits that can help you cope with the holiday pressure:

Set realistic expectations

In many cases, the pressure we feel does not come from what others expect of us but from what we expect from ourselves. The holidays don't have to be scheduled to perfection in order to be magical. And not every holiday has to be better than the one before. Simply try to take things as they are and focus on the positive aspects rather than on what could or should have been.

Continue to practice self-care

The holiday season is a very hectic one, and in a rush between getting presents for the family and planning the Christmas Eve dinner, it gets easy to forget about what you need. Continue working out, don't skip your art classes, and remember to hit pause and take time for yourself. 

Learn to say no without feeling guilty

It's admirable that you want to help everyone around you, but taking on responsibility after responsibility will only become dreadful. You are but one person, and you can't do everything alone, so learn to politely decline to take on more responsibilities if you already feel exhausted. 

Walk away from conflict

If conflict with your extended family is what concerns you about the holidays, then the key is to be as neutral as possible. You can't ask people to act or react in a certain way, but you can control how you respond to their actions. Instead of engaging in what you know will be a negative dialogue, respond with something neutral, such as "Let's talk about this sometime else" or "I can see your point, but I would rather not discuss this."

The holiday blues can turn the last two months of the year into something impossible to cope with, but you don't need to let that feeling overwhelm you. Talk to a mental health professional, and they will help you find methods to look forward to Christmas again. 

 
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