The holiday season can be joyous, filled with the warmth of soirées, the sound of uplifting carols and the taste of peppermint everything at Starbucks. But for some people, the stretch from late November through New Year’s Eve brings about something that’s even less welcome than a regifted present from your sister: the holiday blues.
While it's not a diagnosable medical condition, the holiday blues is instead “a term used to describe feelings of sadness or anxiety that typically start in November or December, around the holiday season," says Dr. Samar McCutcheon, a psychiatrist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
And while there might be a shortage of statistics on exactly how many people are affected, there's plenty of evidence that the time of year brings something other than joy to a whole lot of folks: A new poll from the American Psychological Association, for example, finds that nearly 89% of Americans say that they feel stressed during the holidays due to a variety of factors, from financial strain to family conflict. In older research, approximately three-quarters of respondents said the holidays contributed to feeling sad or dissatisfied, and 64% of those living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays. A more focused 2022 survey found that 55% of Americans experience the winter blues, largely fueled by loneliness.
“Knowing about the holiday blues can help us to acknowledge what happens to some people during a time often described as the ‘most wonderful time of the year,’” explains McCutcheon.
So why do the holiday blues happen in the first place — and how can you combat the condition? Here’s what to know.
This can be a lonely time
The holiday season emphasizes the importance of get-togethers with loved ones, leaving those who aren’t able to participate in these group activities feeling like they're on the outs.
“For people who live far from family or don't have a super-close family, or have lost someone, they can feel a sense of, ‘Oh, everybody else is having this great time, and I'm lonely,” explains psychologist Dawn Potter of the Cleveland Clinic. “That can create a different feeling of being down than what a person might feel on an average day in September.”
“Loneliness is a big problem, and even the surgeon general has said that it’s a health risk,” David Spiegel, psychiatrist and professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Loneliness can play into sadness and even depression, because you start to think, ‘Why am I feeling so lonely? Is it because I'm not worthy of people caring about me?’ So you begin to misattribute the fact of being relatively less connected with people as being an indication of something wrong with you, and that can contribute to the blues.”
The holidays come with high expectations
McCutcheon says that “financial strain from the expectations around travel or gift-giving” can lead to the holiday blues as well. While there is pressure to give someone the perfect gift or to travel far to see family you may not see during the year, those burdens can lead to stress and anxiety. The American Psychiatric Association found in a 2023 poll that more Americans are more worried about affording the holiday season — such as when spending money on gifts and food — than they are about anything else related to the festivities.
But it’s not just higher financial expectations: Some people may feel like they need to have exclusively positive feelings around the holiday season, which can be hard for those who are grieving or just in a more negative mindset as they approach this time of the year. And those feelings of needing to measure up can be even more compounded by looking at the picture-perfect holiday depictions of celebrations on social media.
“When we have expectations that we are not meeting, we can often feel down on ourselves or feel like something's missing, because we all have normal ups and downs,” says Potter. “The holidays can also create the pressure of wanting to get things ‘just right’ or please everybody or get the perfect gift or create the perfect meal. We can feel some stress and obligation.”
When it’s more than just the holiday blues
The holiday blues often pass after the holidays — but when they don't, there could be something more serious going on.
Since the holidays fall during wintertime, when there’s less sunlight, it’s possible for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to be mistaken for the holiday blues, says Potter. SAD is a form of major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns that affects about 5% of Americans, and it’s triggered by less exposure to natural light, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Symptoms include sadness, anxiety, fatigue and trouble concentrating.
“If you have a really heavy, slow, depressed feeling, it may be SAD, if it follows a yearly pattern,” says Potter. “They’ve found that people with SAD have more negative feelings about the wintertime, and we don’t know if that’s a cause or effect of SAD yet.”
Some signs that the holiday blues is more serious, Potter says, is if a person is having symptoms that are making it difficult to engage in their daily activities, such as being “so stressed that they're having trouble sleeping at night, or having trouble getting out of bed in the morning or having any thoughts of suicide.” In this case, she says, a person should seek out professional help, such as by going to a primary care doctor who can help them find the best person to speak with, or going right to a therapist.
How to manage the holiday blues
For people who are experiencing the holiday blues and don’t feel like their sadness or anxiety is completely overwhelming, it can be helpful to take proactive steps to get yourself back in a better frame of mind. McCutcheon says that taking care of yourself physically, such as by “getting enough sleep and abstaining from excessive alcohol use,” can help your mental state.
Another thing that can help is avoiding setting the bar too high for what the holidays should be like, she says.
"You can manage your expectations of the holiday season and avoid financial strain and time pressures by putting your emphasis on quality time with family and friends,” she adds. It's important to remember that it's "normal to feel stressed during this time of year" and that "there is no such thing as a perfect holiday season experience."
If distance is the reason you are feeling lonely during the holidays, Potter points to video calls — which of course became normalized during the pandemic as a form of communication — as one way to connect with people you aren’t physically close to.
But if you’re feeling a lack of close bonds this holiday season, you may need to seek out different types of connection in order to combat loneliness. And one way to seek outward connection during the holidays is by volunteering, says Potter.
“You can be with other people," she explains, "as well as support people who may also be alone."
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.