While the holidays are traditionally a time when people are merry and happy, for some, the holiday season can be very challenging. This time of year can create financial, emotional, psychological, and physical stress that leaves many people feeling sad, lonely, reflective, anxious, and blue.
What are the Holiday Blues?
Even good old Charlie Brown cannot escape feeling blue at the holidays as he confides to his pal Linus, "I just don’t understand Christmas. Instead of feeling happy, I feel sort of let down." It is very likely that Charlie Brown is experiencing a case of the holiday blues.
The holidays blues are feelings of sadness, loneliness, depression, and anxiety that occur in and around the holiday season.1, 2 A variety of factors can contribute to these feelings during the holidays. Some of the factors include:3
- Increased stress and anxiety
- Increased financial pressures
- Over-commercialization of the season
- Unrealistic expectations of a perfect holiday
- Friction within the family
- Inability to be with family
- A flurry of obligatory holiday parties
- Memories of past holiday celebrations
- Exhaustion from trying to do it all
- Change in diet or in daily routines
The main contributors to the holiday blues can be summed up as the “Five Fs”:
Those at Risk for the Holiday Blues
There are many reasons why someone might experience the blues during the holidays, though certain circumstances and life situations can increase the risk of going through these feelings. Those most at risk for experiencing the holiday blues include people who have experienced any of the following:4
- a death in the family
- financial setbacks during the year or the holidays
- separation from loved ones at the holidays with work, military obligations, or other reasons
- other major losses, such as moving or life-changing medical diagnosis
- a major change in lifestyle, such as marriage, divorce, a new baby, or retirement
- normal feelings of depression, stress, or anxiety outside of the holidays
For many people, simply learning to recognize common triggers that typically lead to the holiday blues can help stop such triggers or at least lessen their effect.5
Symptoms of the Holiday Blues
According to an article by writers at the University of Maryland’s Medical Center 6 the symptoms of the holiday blues often include:
- Problems sleeping (insomnia) or sleeping too much
- Changes in appetite that cause weight loss/gain
- Anxiety or distress
- Excessive or misplaced feelings of guilt
- Diminished ability to concentrate
- Decreased interest in activities that are normally enjoyable
These symptoms can also be symptoms of other more serious conditions. Other conditions that might also be experienced during the holidays include stress, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, grief and depression. If there is a doubt, one should seek out a health care provider for an evaluation.
Coping with the Holiday Blues
There are several things that can help in making it easier to cope with the holidays before they turn into the blues:7
- Determine your priorities and establish realistic goals for the holidays.
- Delegate some responsibilities to others.
- Take time for yourself.
- Minimize financial stressors by setting a budget and sticking to it.
- Enjoy free holiday activities.
- Think about giving a gift from your heart and give your time or presence.
- Be around supportive people.
- Volunteer and help someone else.
- Create a new holiday tradition.
- Find a new place or a new way to celebrate the holidays.
Many online resources offer helpful suggestions for coping with holiday blues and holiday stress (see some resources at the end of this article). CIGNA Health Care has even developed a free interactive wellness workbook this year on “Coping with Holiday Stress: 10 Keys to Creating Healthy Holidays” available at their website, www.cigna.com.
Remember to Get Your R-E-S-T to Make it through the Holidays
Several years ago, I came up with the acronym of R-E-S-T as a way to remember how to make it through the holiday season:
- Reasonable expectations and goals
- Be realistic about what you can and cannot do for the holidays.
- Get plenty of rest and relaxation.
- Exercise daily
- Eat and drink in moderation.
- Enjoy free activities.
- Simplify to relieve stress
- Set a budget for social activities and gifts.
- Remember that simple gifts can still bring happiness.
- Take time to relax and remember
- Spend time with caring, supportive people.
- Keep in mind that traditions can be changed.
When to Be More Concerned
There are certain times when one needs to be more concerned about a case of the blues, particularly if the person is not periodically feeling better or is experiencing intense, overwhelming emotions daily over a period of more than 2 weeks. Some of the more concerning symptoms include:8
- Constantly sad, anxious, or in an empty mood
- Sleeping too much (hypersomnia)
- Insomnia; middle-of-the night or early morning waking
- Experiencing a change in appetite either reduced or increased.
- Loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities
- Irritability or restlessness
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Feeling inappropriate guilt, hopelessness, or worthlessness
- Thoughts of death or suicide
If the symptoms of the holiday blues, especially the hopelessness and depression, persist past the holidays, or intensify during the season, then a case of the blues may really be a case of depression.13
Anyone experiencing these symptoms daily over a period of more than two weeks should seek professional help or be encouraged to seek professional help. Anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide should also be seen by a health care professional. Some of the people to contact include physicians, primary care providers, health care professionals, mental health care providers, clergy, crisis lines, support groups, or mental health centers. 13
Natural Course for the Blues
Even though the holiday blues can be upsetting, they tend to be short-term. At most, the blues usually last throughout the holidays. The good news is that the holiday blues begin to subside once the season is over and there is a return to normal schedules and daily routines.
Online Resources for Coping with Holiday Blues and Holiday Stress
- CIGNA Corporation, “Coping With Holiday Stress: 10 Keys to Creating Healthy Holidays,” http://newsroom.cigna.com/section_display.cfm?section_id=50.
- CIGNA Corporation, “Tips for Healthy and Happy Holidays in Tough Economic Times,” http://newsroom.cigna.com/section_display.cfm?section_id=50.
- Mental Health America, “Factsheet: Holiday Depression and Stress, http://www.nmha.org/index.cfm?objectid=C7DF954D-1372-4D20-C80ED0A7AB69D250.
- Michelle R. Callahan, PhD,“Tips to Tackle the Holiday Blues,”
- American Psychological Association, “Holiday Stress: How to Stay Calm During the Mad Scramble of the Holidays, http://www.apahelpcenter.org/articles/article.php?id=8.
- Kirsti A. Dyer, Personal Development. Suite 101 “Coping with the Holiday Blues or Depression,”
Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS, FT, CWS
Dr. Kirsti A. Dyer is a physician; health educator; professor; grief, loss and bereavement expert; life challenges expert; author; and former NICU parent. She has achieved Fellow in Thanatology (Death, Dying and Bereavement) standing with the Association of Death Education and Counseling. Dr. Dyer is also a Certified Wellness Specialist.
Dr. Dyer is the domain designer for the Journey of Hearts™ website, created in 1997 as the first and only physician-based website devoted to educating people about the normal grief response. She has presented scientific papers about her experiences with Journey of Hearts and the Medical Internet at several U.S. conferences and international conferences in London, England, Heidelberg, Germany, and Canada.
Since having her second daughter she has shifted her focus from practicing clinical medicine to teaching and being a health educator. She has been teaching nutrition for 5 years and grief and loss for 3 years. An avid writer, Dr. Dyer has articles published in numerous medical journals, conference proceedings, and online sites.