Skip to main content

The holidays are full of festivities. All the fun outings, present wrapping, and family time are what make this time of year so fun and special. But it can also be a little stressful. In my therapy practice, I’ve worked with numerous clients who have said that this time of year often brings heightened emotions.

The good news is that you can fight back so that you’re free to enjoy the season without feeling like an overextended Scrooge. Here are five proven ways to beat the holiday blues before they get the best of you.

01. Recognize the signs.

The holiday blues—experiencing loneliness, sadness, anger, headaches, tension, fatigue, overeating or drinking, or feeling physically and emotionally drained—are not unusual, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA reports that “high expectations for gift-giving, decorating, feasting and family gathering, holiday-related stress” contribute to the holiday blues. Other common reasons, the UC Davis Health System states, include the daylight saving time change, increased alcohol use, overeating, lack of sleep, over-scheduling, lack of planning, setting unrealistic expectations about ourselves and our families, lack of exercise, and lack of me time. Knowing that these symptoms could be warning signs is step one.

02. Identify the sources of stress.

While it might seem that holiday stress hits you out of nowhere, it’s likely that it has been building for some time. When I’m working with my clients, they often tell me that their symptoms came without warning. But, by working together, we're usually able to identify a trigger. And this is incredibly valuable information.

Start with the list of potential stressors from the UC Davis Health System if your triggers aren't easily identifiable. If you get an invitation to a holiday party (on the surface, a fun event) but you start to feel overwhelmed as soon as you open the envelope, pause and ask yourself why you feel overwhelmed. Do you already have a busy day that day? Did you have an unpleasant time at that same friend’s party last year? Or, perhaps you're already racing against the clock to buy everyone on your list fabulous and clever gifts and another hostess gift will put you (or your wallet) over the edge. Once you know your source of stress, you have your blueprint to minimize that stressor.

03. Sleep is the best meditation.

Getting enough sleep has everything to do with the holiday blues. (Well, almost). “Lack of sleep can cause cloudy thinking and irritability. It can also hamper your ability to deal with everyday stress,” reports the University of Rochester Medical CenterHarvard Medical School reports that getting adequate sleep is linked to improved well-being. While it's tempting to stay up late to celebrate or to try to get one last present wrapped, prioritize getting to bed on time instead. Think of it as an investment that will help you better enjoy the holidays while you’re awake.

04. Trouble is temporary. Time is tonic.

This is especially true if you’ve lost a loved one or broken a relationship since the last holiday. “Make sure your holiday expectations are realistic,” says Katherine Nordal, PhD, executive director of professional practice at the American Psychological Association. “Avoid overextending yourself and your resources. If a close family member or friend is no longer living, find ways to recognize that person and start new traditions. Try to maintain some of your normal routine. Pay attention to your feelings.”

Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., a professor and member of the Alliance for Brain Initiatives, tells the Dana Foundation that “these episodes are probably transient and will pass with time and with some positive experiences and interactions with people to whom they feel close.” When you start to feel a bout of the blues, remind yourself that these feelings are temporary. Seek out a mood-boosting activity or surround yourself with close friends and family to help lift your spirits.

05. Manage expectations.

If there’s any time when our expectations run wild to epic proportions, it’s the Christmas season. Marketing messaging tells us what a perfect Christmas looks like, whether it’s an expertly prepared holiday cocktail, ornament-laden tree, or the ultimate Christmas playlist. If we’re not careful, we can fall into the trap of comparing our holiday experiences to manufactured ones; a perfect storm for the holiday blues.

It’s important to note the the holiday (or winter) blues are different from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern (DDSP, formerly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder). DDSP has depressive symptoms that occur most often in fall or winter and is thought to be related to the reduced amount of exposure to daylight. The holiday blues, on the other hand, are temporary. They typically go away once the holiday season and stressors are over, reports the APA. “Unlike the holiday blues, depression doesn’t often go away on its own,” says Nordal. MDD is more than feeling sad or down. And for those already coping with psychological problems like anxiety or depression, holiday stress can worsen symptoms. If you suspect that you're experiencing more than the holiday blues, please consider seeking out therapy for treatment.

By recognizing your stress triggers, managing expectations, sleeping, and focusing on the positives in your life right now, you’ll keep the holiday blues at bay. Leave the “Blue Christmas” to Elvis, and have a blast this season.

Styling: Shelagh Bolger
Photo Credit: Meaghan Clare Photography