Not So Merry This Holiday Season? Try These Tips

This story originally ran Dec. 7, 2017, and was updated Nov. 24, 2023.

Instead of bringing good cheer, what if the holidays bring the blues? While it’s a myth that more people commit suicide during this time of year, the holidays can trigger stress and depression. Sometimes these feelings indicate a mental health issue that needs to be diagnosed and treated; other times, it’s simply a low mood that will pass.

Either way, feeling down is a bummer, especially when everybody is at least pretending to be happy.

“The holidays are certainly times of increased stress that can bring about the blues and depression,” says Bradley M. Gaynes, MD, MPH, a psychiatrist with the UNC Adult Psychiatry Clinic. “There are a couple of reasons for this. Some are practical and others are physiological.”

Here are some reasons you might be feeling down:

Your Expectations Aren’t Met

You may have expectations about what the holidays will bring. Maybe it’s special time with family and friends, a certain gift or a break from an otherwise busy work or school life. When those expectations don’t turn out the way you planned, it can affect your mood.

“The holidays can be a time when hopes, wishes and expectations just don’t get met. So when what we expect does not mesh with reality, it can cause periods of feeling more stressed and blue,” Dr. Gaynes says.

The Days Are Shorter

As days become shorter, there’s a decrease in the brain of a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which balances your mood. Plus, during periods of less sunlight, melatonin production in the body increases, which can make you feel sleepier and lethargic. These can also be symptoms of depression.

“It’s really a combination of decreased serotonin and increased melatonin that has an effect on circadian rhythms, which is like our 24-hour biologic clock,” Dr. Gaynes says. “The time change knocks people off of what they’re used to, and so during that three- or four-month period of daylight savings time, some people tend to have lower energy, some difficulty concentrating and periods of lower mood levels.”

For most people, this does not develop into anything other than a mild lack of energy. “But for others, it actually might be enough to push them into a full-blown, major depressive episode,” Dr. Gaynes says. “Those folks tend to have either a predisposition toward a major depressive episode or have had major depressive disorder in the past. This is called seasonal affective disorder.”

You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of clinical depression that typically occurs in the winter, when we get less sunlight. Symptoms include sleeping or eating too much, not being able to sleep, having a lack of appetite or craving carbohydrates, especially sweets.

“In addition to those symptoms, there also has to be a real impairment or a reduction of your normal functioning,” Dr. Gaynes says. “So it’s not just that you have these symptoms for two weeks or longer, but these symptoms also prevent you from accomplishing what you need to do at work, school or in the social aspects of your life.”

Here are some steps you can take to feel better:

Talk to a Doctor

If you suspect you have seasonal affective disorder or another type of clinical depression, talk to your doctor, who might prescribe medication, therapy or bright-light therapy, which exposes you to about 10,000 watts of mood-boosting light without the damaging ultraviolet rays.

If you’re having thoughts of suicide, seek emergency care right away.

Avoid or Limit Alcohol Consumption

“Although we believe alcohol relaxes us, it’s actually a depressant,” Dr. Gaynes says. “So if you’re already feeling a little bluer than normal and you’re drinking more, which is certainly something that can happen around the holidays, that can worsen a threshold depression and maybe push it over into a full depression.”

Get Some Exercise

“With increased physical activity, people are going to feel more energetic, and in some ways they can keep their circadian rhythm more toward a normal state if they’re being as active as they usually are,” Dr. Gaynes says. “Maintain your exercise schedule or maybe even increase it a little bit.”

Go Outdoors

Getting outside for physical activity during the day has benefits beyond exercise. “Exposure to sunlight can improve mood and energy symptoms a lot,” Dr. Gaynes says. Consider bundling up and hitting the woods or taking a stroll through the neighborhood.

Manage Your Expectations

Be realistic with your expectations of yourself and others. The holidays are stressful, and you’re not going to be happy all the time. What’s more, you can’t control what the people around you say and do, and that’s critical to accept.

“Even if your expectations are not met,” Dr. Gaynes says, “try to focus on the positive.”

If you suspect you or a loved one has seasonal affective disorder, talk to your doctor or a mental health counselor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.