Holiday Blues Are Real—Here Are 5 Tips to Beat Them

Broken candy cane signifying the holiday blues

‘Tis the season of merry and bright, but what do you do when your mood doesn’t match the twinkling lights on your tree? 

First things first, don’t be too hard on yourself. Turns out, feeling like a lump of coal during the holidays is a pretty common phenomenon. 

Indeed, the “holiday blues”—feelings of loneliness, loss, or isolation that intensify during the holidays—are prevalent this time of year, and not just among those diagnosed with clinical depression. One survey by the American Psychological Association found that 38% percent of people experience increased stress during the holiday season.

And for those who do struggle with mental illness year-round, feelings of loneliness and depression can intensify during the holidays. According to a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 24% of people with a diagnosed mental illness find their condition gets “a lot” worse this time of year, and 40% “somewhat” worse.” 

Why do we feel sad in the season of cheer?

Let’s face it: There are hundreds of reasons to feel stressed, down, or just plain overwhelmed during the holidays. While pinpointing the exact cause of your blues can be difficult, possible factors include:

  • Stress. Constant crowds, Christmas carols on loop, and a jam-packed social calendar: Just a few of the things that make the holidays feel extra hectic. All that stress can interfere with feeling the holiday spirit. 
  • Financial strain. An overextended bank account—coupled with the pressure of buying gifts for family and friends—can create an undue burden. 
  • Family fractures. Your family is supposed to be your safe space—a source of encouragement and support. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Spending prolonged periods with relatives—particularly family members you don’t get along with—can be emotionally draining. 
  • Unrealistic expectations. Our society puts Christmas on a pedestal. It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, and it comes with a lot of unrealistic expectations for how we should feel. When the holidays don’t live up to these expectations, we can feel seriously down in the dumps.  
  • Feelings of loneliness. The holidays can be an isolating time of year, especially if you’re away from your loved ones and friends. 
  • Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
  • Some people’s depression during the winter is not holiday-related at all, but rather, has to do with the season itself. SAD is a condition that causes fatigue and feelings of depression during the winter months. If you’re experiencing symptoms of the disorder, talk to a doctor to find a treatment that works for you.  

What can you do to minimize the holiday blues?

#1. Set realistic expectations

Who wouldn’t want a perfect, Norman Rockwell-esque Christmas, like the ones you seen on the Hallmark Channel? However, fantasy-fueled expectations can set you up for some serious holiday disappointment. 

Instead of expecting a cookie-cutter Christmas where everything goes smoothly, remind yourself that even the best-laid plans go awry. Go into the holidays with an open-minded, flexible attitude. Tell yourself that yes, cats do knock over Christmas trees from time to time. Relatives can drink a little too much merlot and start arguing about politics—again. Sometimes, people hate their gifts and do a really poor job of hiding it. Take the good with the bad, and remind yourself that the “bad” moments don’t have to detract from the special ones.  

For some, a good Christmas means getting through the day with as little conflict as possible—and that’s totally okay! 

#2: Start saying “no.” 

During the holidays, there’s a lot of pressure to do everything―say yes to every holiday party, buy gifts for everyone, and go out of your way to make others happy. 

At the end of the day, do what’s best for you. Set clear limits on what you’re able and willing to give—whether it’s your time, money, or emotional energy. Sometimes that means saying no, declining social events, and setting strict limits on your spending. 

When it’s not possible to say no, make sure you’re taking time for yourself. Whether it’s listening to music, taking a bath, or doing yoga, carving out a little “you time” can work wonders for your stress.

#3: Find a support system.

Even if you’re away from family, there are small things you can do to ward off loneliness this holiday season. Try picking up the phone and calling an old friend, reaching out to a new acquaintance, volunteering your time at a local charity, or attending a community meetup or event. 

#4: Make new memories.

Did you love Christmas as a kid? Nostalgia for holidays past can leave you feeling blue.

Instead of mourning old traditions, start some new ones—either solo, or with loved ones. Try out a new cookie recipe, start a White Elephant exchange with friends, make hand-made ornaments with your niece, or dress your dog up like Santa Claus and have a photoshoot. Creating special rituals to look forward to will stop the ghosts of Christmas past from haunting your holidays.

#5: Practice moderation.

During the holidays, it’s important to practice self-care—which isn’t just bubble baths and cupcakes. Self-care also includes the tough stuff, like making sure you’re eating and drinking in moderation.

Because alcohol is a depressant, it can intensify negative feelings you may have around the holidays. Be aware of why you’re drinking. Don’t use alcohol to avoid feeling painful memories and emotions, and try your best to limit your consumption to one or two drinks per social function.

In addition to drinking, eating poorly can also exacerbate issues like stress, anxiety, and depression. Take care of yourself, and don’t slack on your regular exercise. Sticking to your routine can give you a sense of regularity and remind you that, hey—Christmas isn’t so different than any other time of year, and you’re going to get through it. 

While the holiday blues are usually temporary, it’s important to stay in tune with yourself and identify when your depression is no longer seasonal. If you or someone you know needs guidance this holiday season (and beyond), we’re here.