Holiday Blues? Here’s How to Cope

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Why the holidays can be an emotional minefield - and what you can do to help keep negative emotions at bay.

Arnold Williams, MD
Arnold Williams, MD

The days are getting shorter, the weather’s getting cooler and soon the holidays will be here. For some of us, the weeks and months leading up to the holiday season are filled with eager anticipation. But for many others, this time can be an emotional minefield fraught with crippling anxiety and depression. Here, psychiatrist Arnold Williams, MD, Medical Director of the Behavioral Health Center, part of RWJBarnabas Health’s Behavioral Health and Addictions Services, explains the link between the holidays and depression—and offers advice to help you cope.

Why do people get depressed around the holidays?

The holidays coincide with late fall and winter, when exposure to sunlight is decreased. This can have a profound effect on mood. In addition, many businesses slow or even shut down during the holidays, and, for some, that may mean fewer opportunities for social interaction.

Do the holidays tend to exacerbate existing depression?

The holiday season is a time of reflection and gift-giving, which can be rewarding for those in fortunate circumstances. However, isolation, separation from loved ones and anniversaries of loss can all worsen depression.

What’s the difference between being depressed and simply feeling sad?

Depression implies a wide constellation of symptoms over several days or weeks. The emotion itself is only one component. Most commonly, that emotion is sadness, but there can also be anger, loneliness, worry or anxiety, as well as changes in thoughts and behaviors. Examples include losing interest in things you usually enjoy, a decrease in energy, changes in appetite or sleep patterns and reduced self-esteem. At its most extreme, depression can include suicidal thoughts or feelings of not wanting to be alive.

Do depression and anxiety always go hand-in-hand?

They can happen together or separately. Philosophically, depression and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. Anxiety is an anticipatory “what if” reaction, dreading the unknown and fearing the worst. Depression is a conclusion that the worst is happening right now and may not ever get better.

How does grief impact depression and vice versa?

Grief can be a trigger for a relapse in depression, and a person who’s been depressed may experience a prolonged grief period. The holidays are difficult partly because they’re usually connected to memories of a lost loved one.

7 Ways to Counteract Holiday Depression

According to RWJBarnabas Health psychiatrist Arnold Williams, MD, there are things you can do to mitigate depression:

  1. Maintain contact with friends and family, if possible.
  2. Get as much natural sunlight as you can.
  3. Exercise—walk, run, move.
  4. Practice yoga, mindfulness and meditation. They work!
  5. Recognize that this too shall pass. You’ve survived all of the bad days you’ve had so far—that’s proof that things can get better again.
  6. Don’t try to ease the pain with substances; it will compound the problem.
  7. Know that you’re not alone. Reach out to a professional who can help you.

If you or a loved one are in need of mental health treatment, call our Access Center, open 24 hours a day, at 1-800-300-0628 to learn more about your mental health options.