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Not everyone shares in the celebration and joy associated with the holidays. Some people feel stressed and unhappy during the holidays. The feeling is called the “holiday blues,” and it is a fairly common condition often hidden behind forced smiles. Excessive drinking and eating are ways some people react to the holiday blues. They may have difficulty sleeping and physical complaints. If you experience reactions like these during the holidays, you are not alone. Below are some things that cause the holiday blues and ways to cope with them.

What Causes the Holiday Blues?

  • Fear of disappointing others. Many people are afraid of disappointing their loved ones during the holidays. They may spend more than they can afford, or feel that they have let someone down.
  • Expecting gifts to improve relationships. Giving someone a nice present will not necessarily strengthen a friendship or romantic relationship. When your gifts don’t produce the reactions you had hoped for, you may feel let down.
  • Anniversary reminders. If someone important to you passed away or left you during a past holiday season, you may become emotional as the anniversary approaches.
  • Bad memories. For some families, the holidays are times of chaos and confusion. This is especially true in families where people have substance abuse problems or stressful ways of relating to each other. Even though things may be better now, it is sometimes difficult to forget when past holidays were ruined by substance abuse or family tension.
  • It could be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which results from fewer hours of sunlight as the days grow shorter during the winter months.

Strategies for Dealing with the Holiday Blues

The good news is that the holiday blues are usually temporary. Consider these ideas to help make this year’s holidays more enjoyable and less stressful:

  • Be realistic. Don’t expect the holiday season to solve all problems. The forced cheerfulness of the holiday season cannot erase sadness or loneliness.
  • Stay connected. You may want to withdraw and stay by yourself. Make an effort to spend time with friends. Write or call those you care about and recall good times you’ve shared in the past. Many churches and community centers offer activities to help people cope with the holiday blues.
  • Drink less alcohol. Even though drinking alcohol gives you a temporary feeling of well-being, it is a depressant and cannot make anything better.
  • Give yourself permission not to feel cheerful. Accept how you are feeling. If you have recently experienced a loss, you cannot expect yourself to put on a happy face. Tell others how you are feeling and what you need.
  • Have a spending limit and stick to it. Look for holiday activities that are free, such as looking at holiday decorations, window-shopping or attending school concerts.
  • Give yourself special care. Schedule times to relax and pamper yourself. Take a warm bath or spend an evening with a good book.
  • Set limits and priorities. Be realistic about what you will be able to accomplish. Prepare a to-do list to help you arrange your priorities. Find those things that are important to you and do them.
  • Volunteer your time. If you are troubled because you won’t be seeing your family, volunteer to work at a hospital or food bank. Volunteering can help raise your morale by turning your focus to people who are less fortunate than you are.
  • Get some exercise. Exercise has a positive impact on depression because it boosts serotonin levels. Try to get some type of exercise at least twice each week.

After the Holidays

For some people, holiday blues continue into the new year. This is often caused by leftover feelings of disillusionment during the holiday season and being physically exhausted. The blues also happen for some people because the start of a new year is a time of reflection. These reflections commonly focus on problems of the past rather than the positive happenings of the year.

Is It More Than Just the Holiday Blues?

Clinical depression is more than just feeling sad for a few weeks. The symptoms generally include changes in appetite and sleep patterns, having less interest in daily activities, difficulty concentrating and a general feeling of hopelessness.

Clinical depression requires professional treatment. If you are concerned that a friend or relative may be suffering from more than just holiday blues, you should express your concerns. If the person expresses thoughts of worthlessness or suicide, it is important to seek the help of a qualified mental health professional.

Children and Holiday Stress

Families want their holidays to be happy for everyone, especially the children. Many parents do not realize that the holiday season can be a time of hustle, bustle and a never-ending whirlwind of stress for their children.

It is important to remember that children (and parents) need to find time to relax and enjoy a wonderful time of the year. How can children relax when they see their parents running around frantically shopping, baking, decorating and becoming stressed at the thought of blowing the holiday budget after one trip to the mall?

These tips may help both parents and children recognize holiday anxiety and feel less stress.

Signs of a child’s holiday stress may include:

  • Tears for seemingly minor reasons
  • Nervous behaviors such as nail biting and hair twirling
  • Physical complaints including headaches and stomachaches
  • Regression to younger behaviors: bedwetting, temper tantrums
  • Withdrawal from school, friends and family
  • A change in your child’s regular behavior

Here are some ways to reduce stress for the entire family:

  • Remember routines – For parents of small children, this is especially good advice. During the holidays, children will find their routines disrupted. They are often dragged along on shopping trips or taken to special events. They stay up past bedtime and eat too many holiday goodies. When a routine is broken, stress can result.
  • Say “No” – You don’t have to accept every invitation to cookie swaps, parties and gift exchanges that you receive.
  • Nutrition – Have you ever noticed the lines at fast food restaurants as the holidays approach? The lines are getting longer because people are often too busy to go home and cook a nutritious meal. Add all of those sugary holiday treats, and you end up with a stressed out, hungry family. Plan at least one healthy meal for the family every day. Take the time to talk and enjoy being together as a family.
  • Family traditions – Many don’t realize how important traditions are to themselves and their children. Family traditions offer great comfort and security for children. What are your family traditions? Perhaps your family would enjoy creating a holiday calendar or baking cookies together.
  • Attitude check – Both children and their parents need to have an attitude check before the holiday season begins. Take a deep breath, and have everyone in the family pledge to make the holiday season a time of joy and peace. The less holiday stress you feel, the more relaxed your children will be.
  • Rest and relaxation – Everyone, especially a child, needs to take a “time out” over the holiday season to rest and relax. A well-rested child will be much happier on a trip to the mall than one who is in need of a nap. Schedule some rest and relaxation time for everyone in the family.
  • Favorite things – If you are traveling for the holidays, bring your child’s favorite blanket or stuffed animal. A bit of home will help your child feel more comfortable.
  • Laugh – Laughter is still the best way to beat stress and change everyone’s mood from bad to good. Lighten the mood with funny movies, sledding or cozy chats over cups of hot chocolate (don’t forget the marshmallows).

Make a stress-free holiday your new family tradition! Fond memories of the holidays are a beautiful gift you can leave with your children. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the holidays may be one of the few times when you can offer a present that only you can give — priceless memories of a holiday filled with fun, love and laughter for the entire family.

For more behavioral health information, call:    
Anne Arundel County Department of Health    
Adolescent and Family Services    
or visit these websites:    
Anne Arundel County Network of Care    
American Psychological Association    
American Counseling Association

Helpful Resources:

  • Anne Arundel County Department of Health Adolescent and Family Services, 410-222-6785
  • Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency Crisis Warmline, 410-768-5522
  • American Psychological Association: Depression