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Holiday Depression is a Real Struggle. Here’s How to Beat it this Winter

The lights are shining brightly, and Christmas decorations are up. Energetic holiday music fills every store in the United States. What an idyllic picture, right? Well, not so fast. For many of those living with depression and anxiety, the holiday season may not be so merry. A study conducted in 2014 by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) illuminated some staggering statistics. 64 percent of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse, and 24 percent find that the holidays make their condition “a lot” worse. So, what are the symptoms of the “holiday blues,” why are some people negatively triggered by this otherwise merry season, and how does one cope with depression and anxiety around that time of the year?

* National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Dr. Brandon Printup, Clinical Director at the Bobby Dodd Institute (BDI), breaks down this overwhelming condition and provides some proven and extensively tested techniques to help deal with holiday depression and anxiety. 

What is Holiday Depression? 

Do you often have headaches? Are you feeling overly tired? Do you have difficulties sleeping? Is your stomach upset for no particular reason? You may be experiencing holiday depression. 

Christmas and New Year’s are usually associated with happiness, new hopes, dreams, and resolutions. At least, this is what mass pop culture wants us to believe. However, for some, the holidays may cause or intensify the symptoms of anxiety and depression caused by unrealistic expectations or other triggers. The chilly winter weather and reduced exposure to sunlight heighten the sense of sadness and depression. The holidays can quickly become a time of sadness, loneliness, and extensive stress. We can look at holiday stress from three different perspectives – physical, mental, and social, says Dr. Printup.  

Physical Stress 

Physical stress affects the body. It can result in headaches, muscle tension, and fatigue. Prolonged exposure to stressors may lead to substance and alcohol abuse. Some may use food to cope with unpleasant emotions. Everything from shopping sprees to elaborate cooking endeavors can be an incredibly traumatic experience around the holidays, especially for those already affected by mental health conditions. Very often, we find ourselves living up to someone else’s expectations, and this can be especially exhausting during the holidays. The pressure to attend events and gatherings, often outside one’s typical schedule, can contribute to exhaustion and an overwhelming sense of obligation. For those living with sensory issues, deviating from their typical surroundings adds to the stress. 

Mental Stress 

Mental stress relates to the emotional well-being of the individual. Mental and physical stress often go hand in hand. Mental stress, as it relates to the holidays, arises from the extra burden of expectations, particularly during the holidays when one must step out of one’s comfort zone and manage numerous additional chores. There’s also the pressure to meet established societal expectations and fit into the norms. 

Social Stress 

With the approaching holidays, some individuals may encounter social stress and anxiety. This time of the year can be particularly challenging for those grappling with depression, and even more so for those affected by social anxiety. While many may anticipate the hustle and bustle of Christmas festivities, eagerly awaiting gatherings and fun, for others, navigating social interactions can be overwhelmingly daunting. If someone is already dealing with depression or anxiety, the prospect of being around other people may become overwhelming and further contribute to an already challenging situation. 

How Does Stress Affects the Body? 

The symptoms of holiday stress may include headaches, chest and stomach pains, lack of sleep and exhaustion, tense muscles, and cold and sweaty hands. These symptoms arise as a coping mechanism, serving as the body’s way of signaling us to slow down and stop, preventing a potential breakdown. Headaches may signal anxiety, while chest pain could indicate overexertion. 

Holiday stress can have a detrimental impact on our nervous system, triggering a fight-or-flight response. In this state, the body releases hormones to prepare for increased stress, leading to rapid heartbeat, difficulties breathing, and changes in skin color, among other symptoms. Additionally, muscles tense up and contract, contributing to headaches and migraines. 

This acute stress takes a toll on the respiratory system, potentially leading to severe panic attacks. Persistent stress can also cause inflammation in the coronary artery, which has been associated with heart attacks. Moreover, stress can induce increased appetite and unhealthy food cravings. 

How to Fight the Holiday Depression and Survive the Festive Season? 

Plan Ahead 

One way to avoid stress is to plan events and activities that will take place with family and coworkers. Remember, we are only human, not Supermen or Wonder Women. Ensure that you are aware of what is scheduled to take place to minimize surprises. While there may be some last-minute occurrences, if you have planned most of your activities, additional errands won’t cause a significant disruption in your routine. Set up a calendar on your device so that you don’t have to memorize everything you need to do and instead focus on accomplishing the tasks. 

Plan Spending 

During the holidays, many of us tend to spend more – on presents, food, and activities. We may be tempted by significant promotions. Nowadays, most of us use cards. The fact that we spend money that we can’t physically see or touch makes spending even easier. We may often overlook the fact that we must pay back the money we used, which can create concerns for our finances leading to increased stress. One effective way to address this is to plan your budgets and set limits on spending. Creating shopping lists can help you stay on track and avoid unnecessary, impulsive purchases. 

Say “No” 

Many of you may remember the iconic phrase by the first lady Nancy Reagan – “Just say no.” With this simple phrase, she started a successful anti-drug revolution in the United States. While saying “No” can be challenging, especially amidst the holiday hustle, it becomes crucial when dealing with stress, depression, and anxiety. Learning to establish boundaries and set limits with others is a vital skill during these times. Embracing the art of saying “no” can save you from the symptoms that accompany holiday overwhelm – headaches, anxiety, racing thoughts, and that ever-encroaching feeling of being stretched too thin. Prioritize your well-being and don’t shy away from setting healthy boundaries.  


To be at your best, you need to learn to take time for yourself and create a relaxing atmosphere. With close to eight billion people living in the world, what constitutes a relaxing atmosphere can vary significantly for everyone. Some people are sensitive to smells, so experimenting with aromatherapy using essential oils is an option. Identify a scent that evokes positive thoughts and emotions while avoiding those that may intensify stress and anxiety. 

Another effective way to unwind is by listening to your favorite music, whether it’s the soothing notes of Mozart or the hard-rock beats of Metallica – whatever elicits positive feelings for you.  

Make Health Your #1 Priority  

The smell of freshly cooked ham and a homemade cake – how can you resist the temptation to try? Often, when stressed or exhausted, we seek comfort in food. We can often be tempted to indulge in food, especially in those highly processed, highly palatable foods that create a false sense of comfort and happiness. Like managing finances, it’s crucial to set food limits. You don’t necessarily need to meticulously count calories or overthink every bite, but make sure you establish reasonable portion limits. Shift your focus to nutrient-dense foods to ensure your body receives essential nutrients. If you find yourself enjoying a sugar-loaded dessert, don’t stress about it – it’s completely fine, as long as it doesn’t escalate into a binge-eating episode. Eat seasonal fruits and veggies, and don’t forget to hydrate. Choose water over soda and juices.  

Respect Differences 

We are all different, loaded with emotions and feelings. Accept that fact and be willing to agree to disagree. The holidays may intensify family feuds or existing conflicts, ultimately leading to negative emotions and, guess what, more stress and anxiety. Why would you want to ruin your holidays? Learn to respect these differences to make peace with yourself. 

Share Feelings 

Don’t be afraid or ashamed of your feelings. Learn how to communicate with other people, whether it’s a family member, a close friend, or a professional counselor. It is important to talk about how you feel. By suppressing your feelings, you create tension, and those feelings will eventually come out in ways that may generate even more negativity and confusion. 

Take a Break 

This technique is closely related to relaxation. Just as a relaxing atmosphere may look different to everyone, similarly, taking a break may also vary. Consider indulging in an enjoyable book or pampering yourself with a massage. If you are a more active person, engage in yoga, go for a long walk outdoors, or hit the gym. The key is to find that activity that brings you happiness and make it a priority in your routine. 

What Triggers Your Emotions? 

Understanding your emotional triggers is crucial for comprehending your reactions. These triggers may be related to tastes, smells, places, situations, among others. A particular trigger can lead to a fight-flight-freeze response. The fight, flight, or freeze response is the way your body reacts to perceived threats, something that happens outside of your control. Fight is related to the actions you take to eliminate the danger, flight is the attempt to escape that danger, and freeze is when you are not able to do anything, and your brain shuts down. 

It is important to recognize and comprehend your triggers during the holidays. Make sure you plan and prioritize safety. Sometimes fleeing or avoiding a situation might be a valid strategy, depending on your readiness to confront internal stimuli. 

A variety of interventions are available to help you preserve your emotional well-being.  

Meditation, with its focus on deep breathing, guided imagery, and mindfulness, is an extremely powerful practice. We are equipped with mobile phones, and you can find structured meditation techniques directly through your device. There are multiple apps tailored to address anxiety and support meditation. Platforms like YouTube further provide resources, from guided meditation to mindfulness activities, accompanied by stretching exercises and deep-breathing techniques. Deep breathing exercises contribute to mental centering and relaxation. 

Beyond these, journaling proves to be a therapeutic intervention. Regularly jotting down feelings, engaging in behavior check-ins, and conducting body scans can help you recognize triggers and patterns. 

Volunteering is another impactful strategy. It fosters a sense of gratitude and serves as a meaningful distraction during the overwhelming holiday seasons.  

Maintaining open communication with your support system fosters transparency and emotional connection. These interventions collectively form an integrated approach to emotional well-being, which will allow you to navigate the complexities of the holiday season with resilience and self-awareness. 

Have a happy holiday season, and remember, you’ve got this! If you need some extra help, check out BDI Behavioral Health and Counseling Services. We accept most major insurance providers. 

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