What you think of as the “holiday blues” might actually be a more serious condition. Many people experience feelings of sadness or depression during the holidays, a time of year when others expect us to feel happy and joyful.
Although they might sound similar, depression and sadness aren’t the same. According to the Mayo Clinic, depression is a mental illness that causes persistent feelings of sadness and requires medical treatment. Neither is pleasant, and there are ways to overcome both. But sadness is a feeling that comes and goes, while depression is persistent and affects many, if not all, areas of your life. Sadness will eventually go away on its own, while depression is a mood disorder that requires treatment.
Seasonal sadness and depression don’t just negatively affect your health and relationships. They can have a negative impact on your finances. Feelings of sadness or hopelessness can contribute to excess spending if you turn to shopping to make yourself feel better. You might also spend more on food or engage in excessive drinking to cope with negative feelings.
Many people are coping with the intense grief of losing a loved one to the virus. And social distancing rules have made people feel intensely isolated. For safety, many will have to avoid holiday travel to visit family this year. Others are struggling financially due to COVID-19 unemployment.
The virus has also upended many cherished holiday traditions. Holiday parties are canceled. Camping out for Black Friday is a no-go. Some will avoid traditional neighborhood caroling.
This year, the holidays are going to look a lot different than they did last year. This reality is hard on everyone, but it’s especially challenging for those experiencing acute sadness brought on by a traumatic event, such as losing a loved one, and those diagnosed with clinical depression. Fortunately, there are many tactics you can use to accept these differences, combat negative feelings, and find new meaning and joy in the winter holidays.
Is It Sadness or Depression?
Everyone experiences feelings of sadness from time to time. For example, you might feel sad when you get into a fight with a friend or partner or lose your job. However, most people work through their feelings of sadness and feel better in a few days to a few weeks.
So how do you know if you’re simply feeling sad or you’re experiencing a major depressive disorder?
The difference between sadness and depression is the pervasiveness of what you’re feeling. WebMD states that depression goes beyond the usual ups and downs we experience in life. With depression, you experience many more symptoms in many different areas of life.
The Mayo Clinic lists the following symptoms of depression:
- Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness
- Angry outbursts, even over small matters
- Anxiety or agitation
- Loss of interest in hobbies or activities you once enjoyed
- Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased appetite and weight gain
- Frequent tiredness and low energy
- Slowed thinking, body movements, or speech
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt or focusing on past failures
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
- Frequent or recurring thoughts of death or suicide or attempting suicide
Why We Experience Holiday Sadness or Depression
Experiencing sadness or a mood disorder during the holiday season isn’t unusual, and there are many reasons people go through them. In fact, your feelings may be related to one or more of these stressors.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
During the winter months, there are fewer hours of sunlight, which contributes to seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.
The Mayo Clinic reports that seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression related to the changes in seasons. The symptoms are similar to that of depression, but they follow a seasonal pattern, usually coming on during the fall and winter, though spring-summer SAD cycles are possible. As with clinical depression, if you experience any of the symptoms, contact your mental health care provider.
During the winter, more people are stuck indoors due to the cold weather, creating feelings of isolation or cabin fever. Although cabin fever is not a diagnosable mental condition, the term refers to feelings of restlessness, loneliness, or irritability when you’re confined to your home for extended periods. Medical News Today reports that due to lockdowns and physical distancing rules as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people might be experiencing these unsettling feelings than ever before.
The winter holidays can pressure people to recreate the often idyllic holiday family scenes pictured in the media. The Mayo Clinic reports that these unrealistic expectations can result in feelings of stress and unhappiness.
Holiday Stress & Overspending
Kaiser Permanente reports that holiday stress can contribute to seasonal depression. Family get-togethers can end in family feuds, and houseguests can create additional strain. Add the pressure to find the perfect gift for friends and family when your budget is strained, and it can all cause a perfect storm of anxiety and stress.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on our mental health. According to an October 2020 poll by Kaiser Family Foundation, 1 in 4 older adults have reported anxiety or depression during the pandemic. A September 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association puts this number even higher. Researchers concluded that rates of depression have increased threefold since the pandemic began.
How to Combat Seasonal Sadness & Depression
If you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed during the winter season, it’s essential to realize there are many strategies you can use to feel better and find meaning in the holidays and into the new year.
Combat Winter’s Darkness
A 2020 meta-analysis published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that bright light therapy, also called phototherapy, is an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder. If that’s the reason for your depression, investing in a light therapy lamp can help alleviate symptoms.
A light therapy lamp can help you feel more alert, awake, and positive, especially if you use it first thing in the morning. Most people sit in front of the lamp for 10 minutes to one hour per day. However, it’s crucial you follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Looking directly at the light therapy lamp can cause eye damage, and using it late in the day can cause insomnia.
Reimagine Holiday Traditions
In an Oct. 18, 2020, interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota, advised people not to travel for the holidays this year. He says the best gift you can give your family this year is not to risk exposing them to coronavirus.
Visiting family and friends over the winter holidays is something many people look forward to for months. And not being able to connect this year can be a devastating blow for some. Thankfully, technology now makes it easier than ever to see friends and family safely.
In an interview with the Cleveland Clinic, psychologist Adriane Bennet says it’s essential to acknowledge and confront the emotions you feel over not seeing family. Letting yourself feel disappointed and sad can give you the freedom and opportunity to move on.
Bennet also suggests looking closely at the holiday rituals you’ll miss this year. Examine whether they’re meaningful or if you engaged in them out of a sense of obligation. If they’re truly meaningful, how can you recreate those rituals in a new way?
For example, you might have a tradition of driving around with friends and family to look at holiday lights. This year, perhaps you could all go in separate cars and talk with each other on a (hands-free) group call or walkie talkies.
Another option is to cook and eat your holiday meal with family over Zoom. You could also make traditional family recipes and drop them off to family members who are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 so they can stay safely home.
For many people, going to the movies on Christmas Day is a cherished family tradition. This year, holiday movie season is on hold. Many theaters won’t be open, and many studios have postponed holiday releases anyway.
Instead of visiting a theater, watch a classic movie none of you has seen yet. Town and Country has a great list of best classic movies of all time to pick from. You can also check out Esquire’s 50 best Christmas movies. Or use Netflix’s TeleParty to watch movies with friends and family around the country.
Find a Support Group or Therapist
Talking about your feelings with others can help you feel better, which is why finding a support group can be so beneficial. According to the Mayo Clinic, these groups foster a supportive, caring environment, making it easier for people to open up and share feelings family and friends may not understand.
You can find a support group in your area through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration or by doing an Internet search for “holiday depression support group near me.” Due to COVID-19, many support groups are meeting virtually through Zoom. However, these virtual meetups can make it even easier to find a group that fits your needs.
Some people also find talk therapy helpful — talking one-on-one with a licensed counselor or therapist. You can find a licensed therapist for online consultations at BetterHelp.com or through GoodTherapy.org. If you don’t have health insurance, read our article on getting affordable mental health care on a budget.
One significant benefit to working with a licensed counselor or therapist is that they can prescribe antidepressants, which can help relieve the long-term symptoms of depression. Talk therapy and (when necessary) medication can make a difference in your symptoms and help get you on the road to recovery.
Limit Media Consumption
Many people spend hours each day watching the news and scrolling through social media. However, research shows that excessive media consumption, especially social media, negatively affects our mental health.
One 2018 study published in the International Journal of Information Management found that compulsive social media use resulted in elevated anxiety and depression.
Limiting your media consumption during the holidays can help reduce negative feelings. It’s imperative you cut down on “doomscrolling,” which is continually surfing through social media and recent news to read the constant negative news stream.
Staying on top of news events is necessary, especially during a pandemic. But spending hours a day consuming negative news can be bad for your mental health, especially during the holidays.
In an October 2020 interview with Good Housekeeping, Judy Ho, a professor with Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology and a clinical neuropsychologist, says that doomscrolling is an attempt to feel more in control of an out-of-control situation. Ho also explains that doomscrolling can increase your brain’s cortisol levels. She notes that cortisol is a potent stress hormone. And the frequent release of cortisol into your bloodstream may cause tiredness and stress for the entire day, not just the times you’re looking at your phone.
To limit your use of social media, resolve not to hop on your phone at least two hours before bed. Harneet Walia, a medical doctor and sleep disorders specialist with the Cleveland Clinic, states that even checking your phone for a short time before bed can stimulate your brain and negatively affect your sleep. And Harvard Health reports that blue light from your phone also suppresses your body’s production of melatonin, a sleep hormone, which further affects healthy sleep cycles.
Thankfully, technology can also help limit your doomscrolling habit and social media use overall.
One way is an app called Freedom, which allows you to set time limits for social media and Internet browsing. You can even use the app to block the entire Internet. What makes Freedom unique is that it syncs your time limits on all your devices — phones, laptops, and tablets — and it works on both Mac and Windows, iOS, and Android. Freedom offers a free desktop extension, but you must pay a monthly or yearly subscription fee to sync all your devices.
The physical and mental health benefits of exercise are well known, and research shows that engaging in regular physical activity can help alleviate depression symptoms.
A May 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that participants who took part in a six-week aerobic exercise activity experienced significant depression and stress reductions.
During the winter months, some people find it hard to get outside to exercise. Fun outdoor activities like ice skating or snowshoeing can give you the positive benefits of physical exercise without feeling like it’s a chore.
Spending time in nature can also help lower stress levels and increase your feelings of well-being. A separate 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that the stress hormone cortisol decreased 21.3% in study participants after they spent at least 10 minutes in nature. So going for a walk in a local park can provide more benefits than going for a walk on the treadmill.
But if getting out is challenging due to the virus, there are also plenty of indoor workouts you can do at home. Activities like yoga or tai chi followed by a few minutes of meditation can help combat depression and feelings of sadness around the holidays.
Limit Sugar Intake
The winter holiday season is full of temptations that lure us into overeating, especially when it comes to sugary sweets. Every year, homemade holiday cookies fill our tables, and it’s too easy to graze your way through all the desserts. But this year, the lockdowns and physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic have inspired many people to start baking — a lot — with no one around to help them indulge. And grocery store displays are always overflowing with brightly colored cookies and cakes, and it’s difficult to avoid impulse-buying sweets for yourself and your family.
The problem is that excessive sugar consumption can contribute to your depression. A January 2020 meta-analysis published in the journal Medical Hypotheses found that existing scientific literature supports a link between depression and excess sugar consumption.
That’s why it’s so crucial to limit sugar in your diet during the winter holiday season. Striving for balance instead of overindulgence can lead to a healthier outcome and a greater sense of well-being.
- Be Discerning. Instead of sampling many mediocre treats, make a list of your top five desserts or treats. What do you look forward to indulging in this time of year? Skip the treats that don’t mean much to you, and save yourself for the desserts you love. When you eat your favorite treats, go slowly and focus on the food’s taste and texture.
- Watch Portions. This year, resist the temptation to graze on all the finger foods and desserts you make. It’s too easy to lose track of how much you’ve eaten. Instead, put the amount you’re going to allow yourself to have on a plate. When the plate is empty, you’re done.
- Give Away Baked Treats. Consider giving your treats to a house-bound senior in your neighborhood or community or a local nursing home. Safely reaching out to seniors is especially critical this year due to the pandemic since many people won’t be able to spend the holidays with their families.
- Don’t Bring Treats Into the House. Grocery stores do their best to encourage you to buy holiday treats. However, these treats add to your grocery bill and ensure there’s plenty of sugar at home to stress-eat after a long day. A better strategy is to keep all those premade treats out of your house. If you don’t buy them, you’ll save money on groceries and save yourself from all those extra calories.
- Find Healthy Substitutions. Instead of buying premade treats, focus on healthier options, such as in-season fruit or a small dark chocolate square. You can also satisfy your craving for something special and sweet with tea. Many gourmet dessert teas are naturally flavored and contain no added sugars. For example, Harney & Sons Chocolate Mint tea is a wonderful substitute for minty hot chocolate, while The Republic of Tea’s Red Velvet Chocolate tea is almost as good as a slice of the real thing.
Helping others during the holidays is another strategy you can use to overcome feelings of sadness and loneliness.
According to a 2006 National Institutes of Health study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, giving to charities activates regions in the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. Giving and helping others just makes us feel good.
Helping others also benefits adolescents with depressive symptoms. A 2019 study published in the journal Emotion found that daily help-giving behaviors helped fulfill the social and emotional needs of depressed adolescents.
There are many ways to help others, especially during the winter holidays.
- Shovel snow for a senior in your neighborhood.
- Answer a needy child’s letter to Santa through the USPS’s Be an Elf program.
- Donate to Feeding America so every family can have a healthy holiday meal this season.
- If you knit, crochet, or quilt, make a blanket for a child in need and donate it through Project Linus. Since 1995, the nonprofit has donated over 8 million blankets to children.
- Purchase a gift on Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Amazon wish list. Contributions go to children and teens receiving care at the hospital over the holidays. You can also see other ways to give on their website.
- When you go through the drive-thru, pay the bill for the person in line behind you.
- Donate or purchase a gift for a child or young adult in the foster care system through One Simple Wish. Wishes range from laptops for schoolwork to attire for dance classes.
- Purchase a gift for a child and donate it to the U.S. Marines Toys for Tots program. You can also organize a toy drive yourself and ask friends, family, and co-workers to donate toys for the charity.
- Make handmade holiday cards for hospitalized kids with Cards for Hospitalized Kids. The organization asks that you send in holiday cards at least two weeks before the holiday’s date.
During difficult times, it’s easy to lose sight of all the blessings in your life. However, feeling grateful for what you have is a powerful way to increase your happiness and well-being.
An October 2020 meta-analysis published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found evidence that gratitude was moderately to strongly correlated with well-being.
Additionally, a 2018 study published in the journal Psychotherapy Research looked at how expressing gratitude can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Researchers divided participants into three groups: a control group that did nothing, a group that journaled their deepest thoughts and feelings, and a group that wrote one gratitude letter to someone else each week for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, participants in the gratitude group reported significantly better mental health than the other two groups.
One way to feel more grateful is to keep a gratitude journal. Spending just five minutes per day reflecting on what you’re thankful for can positively affect your feelings of happiness and well-being. It also helps you maintain awareness of all the good in your life. Instead of dwelling on negative events, you might find that you actively search for the positive aspects of people and situations.
Another way to cultivate more gratitude is to tell the people in your life why you love and appreciate them. For instance, you could thank a colleague at work who helped you out with a work project or reach out to a teacher who made a positive difference in your life. Make it a goal to send out three expressions of gratitude each week.
Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist says, “I’m not sure why the greatest blessings are the easiest to forget. Maybe it’s because they’ve become so commonplace to us that we don’t even notice their existence (until they’re gone.)” Stop and think about the everyday blessings in your life that might be going unnoticed: a supportive spouse or partner, a roof over your head, food in your pantry, healthy children. And take some time to feel grateful for your greatest gifts.
Take Time for Self-Care
It’s always important to take good care of yourself, but self-care is even more critical during the holidays, when stress levels are high and you’re feeling sad or lonely.
First, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Harvard Medical School reports that sleep and mood are closely connected, and when you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s easy for feelings of sadness and hopelessness to take hold. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, find some natural remedies to help with insomnia so you get your body back on a healthy sleep schedule.
It can also help to wake up a bit earlier than you usually do and use that extra time to relax and ease into your day. That can be especially beneficial during the winter months, when daylight is in short supply. So instead of getting dressed and rushing out the door, you could write in a journal, exercise, watch the sunrise, and eat a healthy breakfast.
Next, do some activities that make you feel good. For example:
- Treat yourself to an at-home DIY spa day.
- Go on a socially distanced hike with some close friends.
- Reread a book you cherished as a child or young adult.
- Watch funny videos on YouTube.
- Wash your sheets and make your bed.
- Bake some homemade bread.
- Tackle one item on your to-do list that you’ve been putting off.
- Create a stop-doing list and choose one task or commitment you need to stop doing to feel better, like watching too much television or spending time with a negative friend.
- Listen to your favorite song.
- Call an old friend and reconnect.
- Relieve stress with an adult coloring book.
Then take stock of your current daily routine and switch out some habits that bring you down with others that are more likely to lift you up.
For example, many people watch the news in the morning as they’re getting ready. If the constant bad news makes you feel sad or upset, skip the news and instead do something to make you feel good, like playing with your kids or taking the dog for a brisk walk. You could also turn off the television and get your news from the Good News Network, which only reports on events that make people feel good.
If you start your morning with social media, take stock of how that makes you feel. If you feel happy and inspired using social media, then by all means, keep it up. However, if checking in with social media makes you feel negative, swap that habit with a positive one, like deep breathing or a cup of tea before you head to work.
The winter holidays can be a difficult time for many people. Many people have high expectations to experience this time of joy, and there’s pressure to overspend or find just the right gift for loved ones. For others, the holidays are a stark reminder of family and friends that have died, and this grieving can compound feelings of loneliness and depression.
Taking simple steps to take care of yourself can go a long way toward alleviating negative feelings. Getting more sleep, exercising consistently, and limiting sugar can all help increase your sense of well-being. Helping others and feeling grateful for your life’s blessings can also help you feel more connected to others.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or abusing substances like drugs or alcohol, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-HELP (4357) for free, 24-7 confidential assistance. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) for free, 24/7 confidential support.