Beat the 'holiday blues' (and know when to seek help)

Checkup on Health

consoling a friend
There are several reasons people may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression over the holidays. Symptoms may indicate the “holiday blues” or be signs of a more serious major depression.

Although the holidays are a time of joy for many, they can also trigger symptoms of anxiety and depression to different degrees.

There are several reasons people may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression over the holidays, said Robert Hales, chair of the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Symptoms may indicate the “holiday blues” or be signs of a more serious major depression.

The holiday blues may plague more people this year as concerns about the economy abound. Common causes include:

Time change

With the change in time, as many as a third of people who have experienced a major depressive disorder will experience worsening of their symptoms during the winter months, Hales said. In addition, people without full-fledged depressive disorders often report some decreased energy, sadness, decrease in interest or pleasure in activities, and sleep disturbance. Getting out in the morning light and spending time outside can be quite beneficial.

Increased alcohol use

'Blues' vs major depression

Since the holidays may be a period where people experience increased depression or anxiety symptoms, it is important to recognize the signs of major depression. Read more

It is common during the holiday period for people to celebrate. Unfortunately, a certain percentage may drink too much. Alcoholism is also a disorder that commonly occurs with depression. Limit your drinking and remember that it is okay if you don't feel festive. Accept your inner experience and do not force yourself to express specific feelings.


Obesity is a major American problem. During the holidays, there is a tendency for all of us to eat too much, which can lead us to feel worse about our body image and ourselves.

Lack of sleep

It is not uncommon for people to spend more time celebrating, meeting people and going out. Unfortunately, decreased sleep is a major contributor to feeling tired and lethargic during the day, and may contribute to increased rates of depressive symptoms. It is important during the holiday period to try to develop healthier sleep habits.

Overscheduling and lack of planning

There is sometimes a desire to meet with as many people as possible that we have not been able to see during the year. This results in a packed schedule. Frequently, we will feel rushed and burdened by the need to interact with so many over such a short period. Don’t overbook yourself. Try to limit the number of interactions and think carefully about who you wish to meet.

It is not uncommon to see people running around malls at the last minute because they delayed purchasing gifts. This adds a great deal of stress and contributes to holiday blues.

Unrealistic expectations about ourselves

During the holidays, we frequently meet other people that are quite successful and are advancing throughout their careers. This may lead us to place unrealistic expectations on ourselves concerning our own accomplishments, or our perceived lack of them. None of us is perfect, and sometimes we develop unrealistic expectations over the holidays of what we should accomplish and focus our failures.

Be realistic in what you seek to achieve, both personally and professionally. Don’t label the holidays as a time to cure all past problems. The holidays do not prevent sadness or loneliness.

Unrealistic fantasies about our families

Frequently during the holiday season, we will see movies that picture “the wonderful life,” exemplified by “perfect” families. Unrealistic expectations that one’s own family should meet these high standards can be quite depressing. Try to be realistic and emphasize your family's strengths rather than weaknesses.

Loss of, or distance from, loved ones

The holidays also are a time when we think about the loss of loved ones, especially parents or siblings. Or, if they are still alive, we may think about the inability to spend time with them because of work, distance, or cost. If your holiday experiences with your parents and siblings were enjoyable, sometime sadness creeps in since you mourn the loss of these happy times. The task, then, is to create among your own family, an atmosphere of joy and love that you experienced as a child.

Lack of exercise

Because of frequent rain, people often exercise less during the holidays. Exercise is a known preventive activity for depressive symptoms, and decreasing the amount of a regular exercise can worsen symptoms.

Lack of time for oneself

A major focus of the holidays is providing things for other people or looking after them. We frequently neglect ourselves during this time. This externalization of efforts can deplete your reserves and worsen symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Practice self-care and look out for yourself during the holiday period. The holidays are a wonderful period to reflect, reassess and make plans for the future. Tell people about your needs if you have recently experienced a tragedy, death, or romantic break-up.