As the holiday season approaches, many people look forward to festive decorations, hearty food, and quality time with loved ones. However, for some, this time of year can also affect their mental health, bringing feelings of sadness, stress and anxiety.

A study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64% of Americans with a diagnosed mental health condition report feeling worse over the festive season. These struggles are common, but there are strategies to help individuals cope and find joy during this festive season.

Understanding the link between mental health and holiday blues

Seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), was first described in 1984 by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., and is a type of depression that occurs at the same time each year, typically during the winter months. The lack of sunlight, shorter days and colder weather can contribute to the development of SAD, and according to the Cleveland Clinic, 5% of U.S. adults suffer from the disorder, while 20% of people still feel a milder form of the "winter blues."

Daylight savings time affects the mental health of Americans so much so that lawmakers have tried to eliminate it completely. In a poll conducted by YouGov, 62% of participants said they want the clock changing practice to end.

While these feelings of sadness can affect anyone during the colder and darker months of the year, the holiday season can be particularly challenging for those dealing with SAD.

The social aspects

The holidays often bring increased social and familial expectations and financial pressures. This season can also be a reminder of past losses. From family traditions shared with loved ones who may not be around this year to end-of-year reflections, the holidays can evoke complex emotions that blend joyful, nostalgic and sorrowful feelings.

All of these factors can contribute to feelings of anxiety, stress, and sadness, exacerbating the symptoms of SAD or leading to temporary holiday blues.

Recognizing the signs of mental health struggles

It is important to recognize the signs of seasonal depression and holiday-related mental health struggles early to address them effectively. Some common symptoms that may grow from persistent sadness and low mood include:

Fatigue and decreased energy

Seasonal changes can disrupt the body's production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep patterns. With shorter days and longer nights, some individuals may experience disruptions in their sleep-wake cycle, leading to fatigue and low energy levels, which can contribute to feelings of sadness.

Irritability and mood swings

In the winter months individuals have a reduced exposure to sunlight, which can lead to vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is important for overall mental health, and some individuals may experience worsening mood symptoms during the winter due to insufficient exposure.

Difficulty concentrating

Difficulty concentrating is a common and debilitating symptom of depression, often referred to as "cognitive impairment." This cognitive dysfunction can significantly impact a person's ability to think clearly, focus on tasks, and make decisions.

Changes in appetite and weight

People may be less motivated to exercise and more likely to consume comfort foods high in sugar and fat during the winter months, which can have negative effects on mood and energy levels. These lifestyle choices can exacerbate feelings of sadness.

Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

After the excitement and social engagement of the holidays, people may experience a post-holiday letdown, where they return to their regular routines and feel a sense of emptiness or sadness.

Withdrawal from social activities and friends

During the winter months, colder weather and inclement conditions can make it more difficult for people to engage in outdoor activities and socialize. This isolation and social withdrawal can lead to feelings of loneliness, which are strongly associated with depressive symptoms.

Increased stress and anxiety

Holiday-related expenses, such as gift-giving, travel and hosting can place a significant financial burden on individuals and families, leading to stress and anxiety about money. Furthermore, the pressure to meet social and family expectations, and the nostalgia that comes with the holidays can contribute to these feelings of stress and anxiety.

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it's crucial to seek support and take action to manage mental health during the holidays.

Tips for staying positive and managing stress during the holidays

  • Seek professional help: If symptoms persist and interfere with your daily life, consider seeking professional help. A mental health therapist, counselor or psychiatrist can provide guidance, support, and, if necessary, recommend medication.
  • Prioritize self-care: Make self-care a priority. This includes setting aside time for relaxation and activities you enjoy. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep can also have a positive impact on your mental well-being.
  • Set realistic expectations: Be realistic about what you can accomplish during the holidays. You don't need to create a perfect holiday experience. Focus on what is meaningful to you and your loved ones, and don't overextend yourself.
  • Seek social support: Reach out to friends and family for emotional support. If you're feeling isolated, consider attending holiday gatherings, even if briefly, or connect with support groups for individuals facing similar challenges.
  • Manage finances wisely: Financial stress can be a significant source of anxiety during the holidays. Create a budget and stick to it to avoid overspending. Consider alternative gift-giving options, like homemade gifts or spending quality time together rather than purchasing material items.
  • Try light therapy: For those with SAD, try light therapy. Lightboxes that mimic natural sunlight can help regulate your body's internal clock and alleviate some of the depressive symptoms associated with seasonal depression.
  • Acknowledge and honor those who have passed: While it's important to move forward and start new traditions, honor those who may have passed in recent years by lighting candles, sharing joyful memories with friends and family, or donating to a charity in their name.
  • Consider volunteering and giving back: Helping others can be a fulfilling way to find joy during the holiday season. Consider volunteering your time or resources to a charitable organization, as it can boost your mood and sense of purpose.

Focus on mental health

Many individuals face these struggles during the holiday season, and it's crucial to recognize the signs and take proactive steps to maintain your well-being. With self-care, support, and a focus on gratitude, it is possible to navigate the holiday season with a positive outlook, even when facing stress and anxiety, and prepare yourself for a successful new year.

If you or someone you know is struggling, do not hesitate to seek professional help. By addressing these challenges head-on, you can enjoy the holiday season to its fullest, finding joy and fulfillment amid the festivities.