For some people, the holidays are the happiest time of year, with a never-ending flood of family and friends gathering, a glut of gifts, and more delicious holiday treats than your waistline can handle. However, for others, the holiday season brings about an unexpected consequence: the onset of some serious sadness—even full-blown holiday depression.
In fact, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), 38 percent of people polled admitted that their stress level increases during the holiday season, and research published in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience reveals that not only do many people find themselves in a worse mood during the holidays, the number of alcohol-related deaths during the pre-Christmas period tends to spike, as well.
But there’s some good news (phew): there are plenty of ways to counteract the holiday sadness you’re trying to drown out with eggnog and cookies.
What are some of the major holiday stressors?
According to the APA, the top holiday stressors tend to be lack of time, lack of money, and the hype that typically precedes major holiday events—and is often followed by a serious letdown.
However, those are far from the only factors that can make folks blue during this time of year.
“There are a variety of things that can make people feel down, sad or even depressed during the holidays,” says licensed mental health counselor and life coach Dr. Jaime Kulaga, Ph.D. “One of the most common reasons people feel down during the holidays is feeling alone… The holiday season is all about family and friends coming together to celebrate and be thankful. Without family or friends around you, the holidays can create feelings of sadness or even symptoms of depression.”
For many people living in northern climates, the weather can also wreak havoc on your mood during this time of year.
“It gets darker outside earlier, becomes colder, and, overall, people tend to be more reclusive…With less activity, people may experience weight gain and a drop in their mood,” says Dr. Kulaga.
“In addition, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a diagnosis that impacts about five percent of the population. Many people know of SAD as the ‘winter blues.’ SAD is a depression that is linked to the change of the season typically in mid to late fall and into winter. As the season goes on, symptoms tend to worsen,” with weight gain, sleep disturbances, irritability, and a lack of desire to do things with family and friends among some of its more noticeable symptoms.
How should you cheer yourself up if you’re saddled with the holiday blues?
Kulaga suggests staying socially active as an effective means of counteracting the low moods that often accompany the holidays.
“The holidays are about family, not about emptying your bank account to buy gifts. If you have some extra cash and your family is a plane ride away, let them know that you are not buying gifts this year or that you are downsizing gifts this holiday so that you can come visit and spend time with them,” suggests Kulaga. “This will probably end up being the best gift for your mind and soul as well as theirs!”
Similarly, while you may want to shut yourself off from the rest of the world when the holidays roll around, taking your friends and coworkers up on those invites to spend time together will do you a world of good in the long run. “Friends are family,” says Kulaga, who suggests starting a Friendsgiving tradition or hitting up a friend’s ugly sweater party if the season has got you down. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology suggests that spending time with friends makes a significant difference among individuals with depressive symptoms.
So if you’re feeling blue: Pick up the phone and call an old friend. Or arrange to meet someone nearby for coffee or a walk in the park. Whatever you do, it will work to boost your mood just as long as you’re connecting with someone you care about on an emotional level, and feel as though you are engaged with the larger world around you (i.e.: not isolated or alienated).
What makes holiday depression worse?
While donning your stretchy pants and pigging out may seem like a good way to make yourself feel better, doing so may have the opposite effect in the long run.
“During the holiday season, we are flooded with extra snacks, food, goodies, and alcohol. All this extra fat, calories, and processed foods negatively impacts are serotonin distribution and, consequently, overall mood,” says Dr. Kulaga.
Research suggests that sticking to a healthy meal plan can do as much—if not more—when it comes to boosting your mood than hitting up a party. According to a study published in BMC Medicine, making healthy dietary changes actually reduced participants’ depressive symptoms more than making new friends.
“Keep up the ways you’ve been taking care of yourself,” suggests therapist Erika Miley, LMHC. “Many times when we visit family or are out of our routine, we lose or let go of the ways we fill up our cup. Do your best to maintain some part of your healthy routine.”
What should you do if you notice your friend or family member feeling down over the holidays?
And if you find that members of your inner circle seem to be struggling this holiday season, there’s an easy way to help: just extend yourself. Invite them to a movie, have them over for game nights, or just send them a weekly text to check in.
“If you know someone is sad during the holidays, spend some time letting them talk. Often, we listen to respond, but if we stop to really listen, you can easily find out why someone is sad or hurting,” suggests Dr. Kulaga.
“And of course, if you know that someone is severely depressed, encourage them to talk to a professional, and let them know that it is okay to feel how they are feeling—and that there is hope.” And for more ways to improve your mood year-round, discover these 75 Genius Tricks to Get Instantly Happy.
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