New Year Joy or “Holiday Blues/Holiday Depression”
The beginning of the year brings hope, joy, a new attitude, and thoughts of the future for many. At least that’s the story we’re told in movies, on television, and social media. But what if that story isn’t ours and we look at that time as full of sadness, disappointment, and feelings of not being good enough? We begin the holiday season in November and by the time January 1st rolls around, many of us remain stuck in the “holiday blues.” Also called “holiday depression,” it involves temporary, mild feelings of anxiety and depression, especially during November and December. Particularly for those who have anxiety or depression, studies show the holidays can trigger or increase their symptoms. According to a National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) 2015 survey, 64% of respondents reported the holidays made their conditions worsen. The holidays can turn a spotlight specifically on difficulties of managing life with depression and there’s tremendous pressure on having a good holiday and meeting social or family expectations. However, even those without mental health concerns are susceptible to this phenomenon.
Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) a Cause of Holiday Depression?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mental illness where seasonal changes in weather, temperature, and daylight available (particularly in fall and winter) can affect your sense of wellbeing. However, it’s common in spring and summer where a major symptom is hypomania, a less severe form of mania where one feels “revved” energy, mood, or behavior. There’s no definitive cause for SAD. You may feel “off,” “like a different person,” or experience a notable change in behavior. While SAD is commonly associated with holiday depression, it is not necessarily the cause. Research estimates suggest approximately 10 million people in the US are impacted by SAD, with women affected approximately 4x more likely than men. It’s important to seek professional help if you feel seasonal changes are behind your symptoms.
If Not SAD, What are Possible Causes of the Holiday Blues?
Some letdown after the holidays is normal; we all experience it. It can be a whirlwind of parties, dinners, friends, family, and fun and suddenly it ends on New Year’s Day. Most people feel some positive holiday emotions; however, they might experience mixed or negative ones that can bring out the holiday blues too. Studies suggest the following possible causes:
- Stress – buying and receiving gifts, attending parties, making holiday dinners, work, and visiting relatives may cause feelings of overwhelm.
- High expectations for a “good” holiday and disappointment if they aren’t met.
- Finances – all of the holidays falling within a short amount of time can be costly on the wallet, especially gifts, holiday activities, or end of the year bills.
- Social isolation, whether self-imposed or lacking friends or family to spend time with, can trigger depression.
- Grief is a complicated emotion and can resurface or be exacerbated during the holidays, especially if it’s when a loved one died; seeing certain people or photos and recalling memories.
- Inclement weather such as colder temperatures, rain, snow, consistent days of greyness can have some effect on mood.
- The New Year, especially focused on being a time of reflection, may cause us to remember past disappointments, letdowns over not meeting goals, comparisons to friends or family member achievements and feeling less than, as well as rumination or “getting stuck” in a negative thought pattern.
- Many people believe that if New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day (a “new beginning”) does not go well, it may foreshadow a bad year full of more disappointments.
- Adrenaline comedown – an abrupt end to stress hormones after a major event or events.
- Back to reality and business as usual. Things return to normal for many people the first week of January are coming down from the “most wonderful time of the year.”
- Overindulging in drinking alcohol and/or eating lots of sugary treats can impact mental and physical health.
What are Symptoms of Holiday Depression?
Symptoms can be similar to those of anxiety and depression. It’s important to self-monitor and gauge where you’re at physically and emotionally. Again, some letdown is expected, A general rule is if they continue to last for more than 2 weeks and/or linger and worsen through January, you should seek input from a professional. Here are key symptoms:
- Gastrointestinal issues
If you already have depression or anxiety, you may have these symptoms on a regular basis. Pay attention to any noticeable mood or behavioral changes that may indicate worsening mental health. According to research from the UK, suicides reach their peak on New Year’s Day. In addition, 65% of all relationship break-ups occur in January.
What You Can do About Holidays Blues: Coping Skills
Getting yourself out of the holiday blues involves refocusing on both physical and mental health. The new year brings the opportunity to set realistic, achievable goals. Here are some suggestions:
- Basics – sleep, exercise, eat a balanced diet, and drink water. These regular activities are the foundation for wellbeing.
- Take time out for fun – social interaction is important for mental health. Hanging out with friends or family has positive effects on health and prevent feelings of isolation. Schedule activities you enjoy and look forward to doing.
- Be patient with yourself and have self-compassion – It may take time to get back on track. Allow yourself to ease back into regular routine and don’t set unrealistic expectations.
- Focus on mental health and make it a priority by setting reasonable goals for change. Meeting them can make you feel better and boost self-esteem.
- Focus on yourself, not others – judge your achievements separate from others, consider areas for improvement, and think about what type of person you want to be regardless of others’ expectations.
- Distract yourself – rumination or obsessive thoughts can make you feel bad and trigger depression. Engage in activities to break the negative thought pattern. For some suggestions, please see our blog on distraction and processing coping skills.
- Start new traditions to begin the year that work for you – you don’t need to go out, attend parties, or make resolutions; do what works for you and makes you happy.
I hope that this information on the holiday blues/holiday depression is helpful to you. Please be on the lookout for our next blog.
For more information on Small Town Counseling services for children and teens, what to expect, and/or scheduling an appointment check out our Child and Teen Counseling Services or call 209-968-1707. FAQs and resources for depression are available in our Good Reads! For additional parenting resources visit Parenting Resources.
The Year’s Over and I Can’t Shake Feeling Sad. Could I Have the “Holiday Blues?” is written by David Cayton, M.A, M.S.. David has experience as a mental health professional working with children, teens, and professionals, an academic advisor, education-based research assistant, and student affairs at colleges and universities. At the time of this publishing, David Cayton is Trainer and Research Associate at Small Town Counseling® a group mental health practice located in California that helps individuals, groups, and organizations in promoting mental wellness and education on trauma and anxiety through mental health services and training.
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