Sad During The Holidays? Here Is The Science Behind The Old Holiday Blues

If you’re looking ahead to the approaching holidays and feeling more dread than cheer, you may find yourself wondering, “What causes the holiday blues? Why am I feeling more ‘Bah humbug!’ than ‘Holly jolly’?” In the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, everything from holiday TV specials to music to advertisements is telling us to be happy; one holiday classic insists “It's the most wonderful time of the year / It's the hap-happiest season of all!” But for many, this demand to be joyful only emphasizes the depression and anxiety that frequently crops up this time of year. In addition to feelings of sadness, anxiety, and irritability, people with the “holiday blues” can experience a number of physical symptoms, including headaches, stomach problems, and sleeplessness.

The holidays can trigger depression for a number of reasons. It’s important to note, however, that some people’s depression during the winter has nothing to do with the holidays, but rather with the season itself. According to American Family Physician, about five percent of Americans experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the autumn and winter, a condition that can cause fatigue and feelings of depression. Women, young people, and those with a history of depression are most at risk for SAD, and living far away from the equator (and therefore having less light in the winter) is a factor, too. If you think you may be suffering from SAD, talk to your doctor; light therapy can be a simple, effective treatment for the disorder.

Although dark skies can contribute to the holiday blues, there are a variety of other factors that can make your holidays less than merry:

Stress.

Many people experience an uptick in the amount of stress in their lives when the holidays roll around; in addition to the usual stressors in their lives, they may have to deal with busier-than-usual social schedules, year-end projects at work, planning family events, buying and distributing gifts, and finding a way to pay for those gifts. Holiday stress is especially hard on women. A 2006 survey by the American Psychological Association found that women report an increase in stress during the holidays more than men do, and they are also more likely to feel stressed about time management and finances during the holidays than men are.

Stress can have a detrimental effect on the body, and some of the behaviors people use to cope with stress, like overeating, also contribute to feelings of depression and general blah-ness. To cope with holiday stress, try to practice good self-care, and if the demands on you are too much — if you simply cannot handle another awkward Christmas party — don’t be afraid to say “No, thanks.”

Too much food and booze, not enough exercise.

The holidays revolve around giant feasts, sweets, decorated cookies, and pots of eggnog and mulled wine that seem to appear out of nowhere. It’s unsurprising that many of us overindulge in mashed potatoes and holiday candy, and have a few too many glasses of champagne on New Year’s Eve. Add to that the fact that overeating and drinking is a common coping method for stress, and suddenly the holidays become a perfect storm of sugar and alcohol.

As if that weren’t enough, the disruption of our normal routines during the holidays often means that we don’t get the same amount of exercise we usually do, leaving our bodies feeling fatigued, sluggish, and, potentially, hungover. Is it any wonder people get depressed?

If you’re battling the holiday blues, it’s important to remember that the wellbeing of our physical bodies has a major affect on mood and mental health. To the extent that it’s possible, try to eat well, moderate your alcohol consumption, and get some exercise. Your body and your brain will feel better.

Expecting the impossible.

Perhaps the biggest catalyst for the winter blues is simply the monumental amount of pressure that we tend to put on ourselves to have perfect, cookie cutter holidays. Throughout the season, the media bombards us with images of perfect family gatherings, free of conflict or angst; people exchanging profoundly meaningful gifts that they’ll cherish forever; and everything that’s bad in the world melting away in under the awesome power of the “holiday spirit.”

But — and I say this as someone who loves the holidays — that’s all bullsh*t. No matter how much people try to orchestrate holidays to look like Norman Rockwell paintings, the world will continue to be an imperfect place. By putting too much pressure on ourselves to have “perfect” holidays or to recreate the holidays of our childhoods, we set ourselves up to fail when things don’t turn out the way we want them to.

That isn’t to say that we should all just give up and expect the holidays to be awful, but it may be helpful to have more open, flexible ideas of what good holidays might look like. If, for example, you have a history of family conflict, maybe a good Christmas doesn’t mean having the whole family sitting in perfect harmony around a crackling fire. Maybe it means getting through the day with as little conflict as possible, and treating yourself to a separate celebration with friends or indulging yourself by relaxing with a book on your own. Allow your holidays to be their own thing, regardless of what you see on TV or in other people’s lives.

Feelings of loneliness.

The holidays can be particularly difficult for people who are feeling lonely — because they can’t be with their families, because of a breakup, because of the loss of a loved one, or any other reason that they may feel isolated or alone. If you can, seek out opportunities to be with others, like going to a friend’s house for Christmas or participating in a community event. In an interview for US News, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, encourages people to be active, rather than passive, when it comes to loneliness during the holidays. If you’re going to be alone, make a plan; she says, “When you feel in control of your experience, that alone makes you feel better.” That may mean that you volunteer, go on vacation, or simply decide to stay home and cook a feast for yourself. The key is that you decide what you’re going to do.

Images: Pixabay; Giphy (1, 2, 3, 4)