We often have huge expectations for the holidays. We imagine our friends and family assembling to share a scrumptious meal, to trade presents and to generally get along. And yet, the holidays seldom play out the way we envision. For many, the season instead fosters feelings of sadness and stress.
These feelings, alongside fatigue, frustration and anxiety, are all signs of the “holiday blues” — a temporary malaise that troubles millions of individuals each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. For them, even simple activities can become tiresome. Sometimes, they see changes to their appetite and sleep schedule or struggle to appreciate activities they previously found fun.
If these symptoms seem reminiscent of other heavy-hitting mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, there's a pretty good reason. According to NAMI, 64 percent of people already diagnosed with a mental illness say that the holidays exacerbated their symptoms. Let's get into why.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Of course, no one needs a diagnosis to feel fatigued, frustrated or overwhelmed throughout the season. Psychologists point out that anyone can become bogged down by holiday blues, an ailment that differs from depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and seasonal affective disorder — a debilitating condition that coincides with seasonal changes in sunlight and can be present for as much as 40 percent of the year.
According to Elaine Rodino, a Pennsylvania psychologist in private practice, the biggest distinction is that holiday blues are temporary, typically appearing around November and fading in January without therapy or other treatment. “These feelings should dissipate,” she says. “If they continue for several weeks beyond the holidays, then maybe something deeper is going on, and the person does need psychological help.”
Another important distinction is that the holiday blues are situational, appearing thanks to circumstance and without the internal, chemical causes that characterize disorders such as depression and anxiety. Though these conditional triggers come in all shapes and sizes, the following often appear as common sources of such feelings:
Family Frustration: The prospect of passing time in the company of family can create feelings of anxiety and anger if it recalls past trauma and negativity. “Some people have very unhappy holiday memories,” Rodino says. “They grew up in families where there was perhaps alcoholism and violence, and holidays would usually end up unhappy and traumatic. When the holidays come, they try not to think of those memories, but the memories are there.”
Social Separation and Loss: People separated from their friends and family frequently feel longing, loneliness and isolation throughout the holidays. These feelings also intensify for individuals stumbling through the loss of a loved one, Rodino adds.
Financial Fatigue: For individuals struggling to make ends meet, surviving through the season can seem impossible and might even foster feelings of powerlessness or inadequacy. “These days there are a lot of people that are suffering financially because of COVID-19,” Rodino says. “The whole pandemic has increased the burden.”
These situations, she adds, are not isolated to the holiday season. Rather than produce new problems, the season simply intensifies the issues and feelings that individuals face at any other time of the year. “They most likely will go through this in the same way they handle other times when they may be sad or anxious,” Rodino says.
The Holiday Hype
At the core of this intensification, Rodino says, are the high hopes that the holiday season holds: “The media does a pretty intense job of hyping up the holidays.” Traditional holiday imagery shows families present and content, speaking amiably and piling up presents to share. This standard is idealized and almost impossible to accomplish, she says, though many individuals strive to attain the unattainable. “When people feel that they can achieve that, or they try to achieve that and it doesn’t quite work, they feel like somehow they’ve failed. That they’re inadequate."
Many professionals agree that unreasonable aspirations are a significant source of dissatisfaction. “There's this tradition of holidays,” says Pauline Wallin, a Pennsylvania psychologist in private practice. “The holidays don't measure up to the ideal.” Even those who anticipate the festivities all year can frequently find themselves stressed in preparation.
While not many surveys have measured the holiday blues on a wide scale, one notable assessment by the American Psychological Association in 2006 showed that approximately 38 percent of Americans report increased stress during the holidays. A further 25 percent suffer from frequent fatigue, 20 percent from frequent stress and 7 percent from frequent sadness.
Thankfully, psychologists say there are several strategies you can use to mitigate these issues:
Make Plans: Act deliberately and decisively about your activities throughout the season, prioritizing particular celebrations and avoiding overscheduling. “Try to think about a plan of how you want to spend the holidays and who you want to spend them with,” Rodino says. “Don't become a victim of the holidays. Take control.”
Seek Support: Though it’s tempting to spend the time alone, try to speak to someone supportive and create social connections. “Reach out to others,” Wallin says. “Think about somebody in your circle or in your neighborhood that would appreciate a phone call saying, ‘I'm thinking of you,’ because that takes the focus off yourself.” It’s also important to accept kindnesses from loved ones. “Often family and friends realize that the person is going through their first holiday alone,” Rodino says. “They try to include you and take extra good care… I stress that people should allow their friends and family to take care of them. It's a show of love and caring.”
Set Sensible Expectations: Remember that attempting to achieve perfection is a surefire strategy for feeling frustrated, fatigued and insufficient. Avoid comparing yourself, your friends and your family to the ideals swirling around the season. “When we compare ourselves with others, we ultimately feel worse,” Wallin says. Instead, set your sights on a realistic season and concentrate on the things that are successful to reroute attention from imperfections. “Being grateful for what you have is another thing that is helpful,” she says.
Spot Spiraling Symptoms: Finally, if your feelings of sadness intensify or persist, it could indicate something serious, such as depression or anxiety disorders. “All of these feelings that we’re talking about are on a continuum,” Rodino adds. “If a person does see some more serious symptoms, and they last longer than a few weeks beyond the holidays, then they should talk with a psychologist.”
All in all, psychologists advise people to treat themselves compassionately. “It is good for people to know that this is a condition that's pretty normal, that they’re not alone and that it ends,” Rodino says. “It’s short-lived.”