What Causes the Holiday Blues and How to Deal With Them

The holiday blues can happen to anyone, but there are treatments you can try.
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It's that time of year. The time where everywhere you turn, there seems to be bright, colorful lights, upbeat holiday tunes and a festive spirit in the air.


The holidays are a joyous time for many people, so you might be wondering why they make you feel sad or overwhelmed.

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For some, the holidays cause temporary feelings of anxiety and/or depression known as the "holiday blues." In fact, 64 percent of people report that the holidays negatively affect their mental health, according to a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Here Michelle P. Maidenberg, PhD, LCSW-R, a therapist and author of ACE Your Life: Unleash Your Best Self and Live the Life You Want,‌ explains why you might feel more anxious or depressed from Thanksgiving through New Year's, and what you can do to manage your mental health during this time and cope with the holiday blues.


If you are having thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call or text 988 for the U.S. Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or visit your nearest emergency room. You can talk with someone who understands, and they can help you find the support you need.

So, What Are the Holiday Blues?

The holiday blues are "temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the holidays that can be associated with extra stress, unrealistic expectations or even memories that accompany the season," per NAMI.


This is different from chronic anxiety and depression because it happens for a shorter period of time. "These anxious, depressed or sad feelings tend to crop up before Thanksgiving and dissipate after New Year's," Maidenberg says.

Some people may even feel a bit of sadness after the holidays, or post-holiday blues. Once all the holiday excitement has settled, you might be left with feelings of loss or exhaustion, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.


Additionally, unlike chronic anxiety and depression, "holiday blues" isn't a diagnosable mental illness. In other words, it's "not a recognized psychiatric condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the manual used by clinicians to diagnose mental health conditions," Maidenberg says.

That doesn't make them any less "real," of course, nor does it mean you shouldn't seek out help if they're affecting your quality of life, even temporarily.



The holiday blues can often be confused with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) because they can both manifest around the same time of year. But the two conditions are not the same, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Unlike the holiday blues, SAD is a diagnosable condition, a form of cyclical depression that happens in seasonal patterns during certain months of the year, Maidenberg says.


Most people with SAD will experience symptoms — like feeling depressed, sluggish and/or agitated — throughout the fall and winter months, not just the holidays (though, less commonly, others may feel depressed during the warmer weather).

Sometimes, you can have the holiday blues in addition to SAD, but the two don't always go hand-in-hand.

Symptoms of the Holiday Blues

For most people, the holiday blues tend to be fairly mild, but symptoms can range in severity depending on the person. Here are the most common signs to watch out for, per Maidenberg and the University of Rochester Medical Center:


  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Depressed, sad or irritable mood
  • Difficulty focusing and concentrating
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Changes in sleep patterns (like insomnia, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, etc.)
  • Feeling fatigued or more tired than usual
  • Feeling tense, worried or anxious
  • Loss of pleasure in doing things you used to enjoy
  • Difficulty carrying out simple activities (like doing the laundry, getting out of bed, etc.)
  • Drinking alcohol more often or more than usual
  • Headaches or muscle tension


What Causes the Holiday Blues?

One of the biggest reasons for the holiday blues is stressors that feel unique to the holiday season.


For example, the holidays call for lots of socializing (think: holiday office parties, family gatherings, etc.). While celebrating with friends and loved ones can be a lot of fun, you might also feel overwhelmed about having more social obligations than normal, Maidenberg says.

Plus, with everyone in the "holiday spirit," you might feel pressure to seem joyful even when you're not particularly cheery, she adds.

A busier-than-normal social calendar also means a disruption to your routine. This could mean less sleep and exercise than you're used to, or drinking more alcohol than typical, Maidenberg says.

On top of this, environmental factors (like less sunlight during the day) can throw your body out of whack, per NAMI.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might feel lonely, isolated or sad if you spend the holidays alone, Maidenberg says. Perhaps you're missing loved ones who live far away, grieving a loss or have strained family relationships. (It doesn't help when you scroll through social media and compare your situation to others who seem happy.)

Lastly, financial stress (hello, holiday shopping) can especially put a strain on your emotions during this time of year. Many people feel pressure to give the "best" and "most expensive" gifts, thanks to the over-commercialization of the holidays, Maidenberg says.

This can lead to overspending and debt, which can only compound your stress and holiday blues.

How to Manage the Holiday Blues

A quick catnap could help boost your mood.
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If you feel down during the holidays, it's important to take good care of yourself and prioritize your mental and physical health. Here are a few ways to beat the holiday blues, per Maidenberg:


1. Set Up a Support System

Sometimes a heart-to-heart with a trusted friend or family member can make all the difference during this time. Communicate your needs to your loved ones so they can better support you.

It may also be helpful to identify the people who contribute to your holiday stress and set boundaries with them as needed (even if that means setting boundaries with your parents).

2. Listen to Your Body

If you begin to feel fatigue or tension throughout your body, take that as a sign: You need to slow down.

Find moments in the busy-ness to practice mindfulness, either with a guided meditation, gentle stretching and yoga, a massage or even just a nap.

3. Be Flexible With Your Plans

While you may be used to celebrating the holidays in a specific way, it's OK to try something different.

For example, instead of cooking every holiday meal, maybe pre-order some dishes from a local restaurant to cut down on the stress of preparing everything yourself.

Put another way: Be open-minded to implementing new traditions for the sake of your mental health.

4. Try Volunteering

The holiday season is also known as the "season of giving" for a reason. Try spending time at your local soup kitchen handing out hot meals, or volunteer at your local animal shelter.

Helping others may not only alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation, but it can also give you a renewed sense of purpose.


5. Don’t Suppress Your Sadness

If you feel sad during the holidays, realize that it's OK. You are valid in your feelings, especially if the holidays bring up painful memories or memories of people you've lost.

Rather than stuffing it all down, acknowledge your grief, then take time to celebrate your life and the lives of those loved ones.

This celebration may look differently for everyone. Some ideas include baking their favorite holiday dessert using their recipe, doing an activity you used to enjoy together or writing them a letter of gratitude.

Can You Prevent the Holiday Blues?

If you notice a pattern of anxiety or depression that develops during the holiday season, there are things you can do to prepare ahead of time, hopefully keeping these blues at bay.

Try some of these strategies to prioritize self-care during the holidays, per NAMI and Maidenberg:

1. Get Enough Sleep

When you don't get enough zzzs, you may find it more challenging to regulate your emotions, which can make you more prone to a depressive mood, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

No matter the time of year, try to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night, per the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

2. Take Time for Yourself, but Don’t Isolate

Try to find a balance between taking quality time for yourself and socializing with those who limit your stress levels.

When you do have your alone time, find ways to relax like listening to music or podcasts, journaling, reading, exercising or spending time in nature.

3. Enjoy Holiday Treats in Moderation

Of course, it's important to eat the holiday treats that make you happy. Bu just make sure to eat and drink mindfully — that is, savoring your food so you feel satisfied without overdoing it.

Beyond the treats, try filling the majority of your meals with nutritious foods like fruit, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein, which will help support better energy levels, mood and sleep, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

4. Get Exercise

Try to stay moving during the holidays, even if this means taking a short walk around your neighborhood. Getting exercise will help increase your production of feel-good hormones called endorphins, while reducing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

5. Make 'To-Do' Lists

By making 'to-do' lists, you can prioritize the most important holiday activities, and either remove or share the responsibilities of the less-important tasks.

Not only will this help minimize holiday stress, but it can make tasks during this time seem much more doable. It can also help you be realistic about what you can and can't do during this time (i.e., cooking for the entire family, shopping, attending parties, etc.).

6. Set a Holiday Budget

Setting yourself a budget for holiday spending ahead of time will help ensure you don't overextend yourself and spend more than you can afford.

When to See a Mental Health Professional

The holiday blues are fairly common, and in most cases they're a short-term issue. Still, it's important to take your mental health seriously, so the blues don't turn into something more serious.

"While the holiday blues are not a clinical diagnosis, the stress, anxiety and sadness of the season can contribute to more long-term conditions, especially for people with preexisting mental illness," Maidenberg says.

If the holiday season passes, and you're still feeling depressed or anxious, Maidenberg recommends reaching out to a therapist. They can help you determine if you're dealing with something like SAD, which could require more long-term therapy or medication.

And of course, if you're having thoughts of suicide or harming yourself, reach out for help immediately. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, your doctor or therapist or go to the nearest emergency room.




Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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