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Tips on How to Cope with Holiday Depression and Stress

The National Mental Health Association developed this factsheet as an introductory overview of depression. Please feel free to photocopy it and share it with others.

Although the holidays are supposed to be a time full of joy, good cheer, and optimistic hopes for a new year, many people experience seasonal “blues.” The holiday season is a time full of parties and family gatherings, but for many people, it is also a time of self-evaluation, loneliness, reflection on past “failures,” and anxiety about an uncertain future.

The “holiday blues” can be caused by many factors: increased stress and fatigue, unrealistic expectations, over-commercialization, and the inability to be with one’s family. The increased demands of shopping, parties, family reunions, and houseguests also contribute to these feelings of tension. Even people who do not become depressed can develop other stress reactions during the holidays such as headaches, excessive drinking, overeating, and difficulty sleeping.

Although many people become depressed during the holiday season, even more respond to the excessive stress and anxiety once the holidays have passed. This post-holiday letdown after January 1 can be the result of emotional disappointments experienced during the preceding months as well as the physical reactions caused by excess fatigue and stress.

Below are several ways to identify potential sources of holiday depression that can help individuals cope with the seasonal “blues”:

  • Keep expectations for the holiday season manageable by not trying to make the holiday “the best ever.” Try to set realistic goals for yourself. Pace yourself. Organize your time. Make a list and prioritize the most important activities. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Do not spend too much time preparing for just one day (Christmas).
  • Remember that the holiday season does not automatically banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely; there is room for these feelings to be present, even if the person chooses not to express them.
  • Let go of the past! Don’t be disappointed if your holidays are not like they used to be. Life brings changes. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. You set yourself up for sadness if everything has to be just like the “good old days.” Look toward the future.
  • Do something for someone else. It is an old remedy, but it can help. Try volunteering some time to help others.
  • Enjoy holiday activities that are free such as driving around to look at Christmas decorations. Go window shopping without buying anything.
  • Don’t drink too much. Excessive drinking will only make you more depressed.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a way you have not done before.
  • Spend time with people who are supportive and care about you. Make new friends if you are alone during special times. Contact someone you have lost touch with.
  • Find time for yourself! Don’t spend all your time providing activities for your family and friends.

Recent studies have shown that there are also environmental factors that can contribute to feelings of depression around the holidays. Some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which can result from fewer hours of sunlight as the days grow shorter during the winter months. Researchers have found, however, that phototherapy, a treatment involving a few hours of exposure to intense light, is effective in relieving depressive symptoms in patients with SAD.

Other studies on the benefits of phototherapy found that exposure to early morning sunlight was effective in relieving seasonal depression. Recent findings, however, suggest that patients respond equally well to phototherapy whether it is scheduled in the early morning or early afternoon. This finding about the usefulness of midday light has practical applications for antidepressant treatment since it allows the use of phototherapy in the workplace as well as at home.

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