Managing Depression During the Holidays

For many, the holiday season may not be ‘merry and bright.’ An increase in darkness due to seasonal changes, family pressure and/or loss, and stressful year-end deadlines may all lead to a deeper feeling sadness. The holiday season may be particularly difficult for those already suffering from depression and anxiety, as constant pressure to feel joy and happiness further exacerbates existing feelings of hopelessness.

It’s not just those already suffering from depression that may feel down during the holidays. Research suggests the holiday blues are a very real phenomenon, with depression peaking in the spring, after the holidays. “I think a lot of people would say the holidays are the worst time of the year,” said Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in an interview with WebMD. “Many feel miserable, and that’s not only for people with clinical depression.”

Holiday Blues vs. Depressive Disorder

According to Robert Hales, chair of the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, comparing the holiday blues to a depressive disorder is like comparing a cold to pneumonia. Depression is one of the world’s common mental illnesses, affecting 16% of adults at some point during their lives. Major depression can destroy a person’s joy for activities, may impact a person’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis, and may increase thoughts of death or suicide. Unfortunately, the holiday season is a trigger for up to 50% of depressive episodes.


Depression is a common, but serious medical illness that negatively impacts how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. It causes feelings of hopelessness and sadness, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical conditions. While it shares many symptoms with the grief or sadness that can result from difficult life circumstances, depression is different, but thankfully, is often treatable.


Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can be beneficial in some situations. However, clinical anxiety goes beyond normal responses to stress and involves excessive feelings of fear, nervousness, and anticipation of a future concern, resulting in a diagnosable illness. Anxiety disorders affect nearly 30% of US adults at some point in their lives. Fortunately, many treatments are available to help people live their lives with fewer interruptions from the disease.

Signs & Symptoms

During the holiday season those with already diagnosed depression and/or anxiety and even those without, may experience heightened symptoms.

Some key signs and symptoms include:

  • Lack of interest in once enjoyable activities. The holiday season holds abundant opportunities for socializing and gathering. If you find yourself not wanting to participate in things you once enjoyed, take note.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of depression correlated to the change in seasons and associated with the limited exposure to light during the winter months.
  • Lack of energy, fatigue, insomnia or oversleeping. If you find yourself feeling more tired, or sleeping more or less than usual, you may be experiencing holiday depression.
  • Increased or decreased eating and drinking. Overindulging during the holidays is commonplace for some, but if you find yourself exhibiting extreme swings in eating and drinking habits, consider slowing down. Alcohol can aggravate depression and anxiety.
  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking clearly, and/or making decisions. If you’re having a tough time focusing, you may be feeling symptoms of anxiety.
  • Persistent thoughts of death or suicide. Call 911, go to a hospital emergency room, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) if you’re experiencing thoughts of death or suicide.

Why the holidays?

The holiday season is frequently the busiest time of year for people. Between year-end deadlines at work and at home, preparing for guests and visitors, holiday activities, and the change in weather patterns, it’s no wonder there is a spike in depression and anxiety.

Risk factors for holiday sadness may include:

  • Setting up unrealistic expectations for the perfect holiday. It’s important to realize there are many factors that may arise during the holidays including familial conflict, resurfacing feelings of grief for loss of a loved one, and pressure on yourself and your family members to all get along.
  • Trying to do too much. You don’t have to say “yes” to every event and activity you’re invited to during the holidays. Over-committing leads to stress and can trigger feelings of sadness and anxiety.
  • Comparison to others. In real life and on social media, people like to discuss what they’re up to for the holidays. Keeping up with the proverbial Joneses may also contribute to overspending and financial woes. Comparing your family to others lends itself to disappointment and unrealistic expectations.
  • Not taking time to care for you. The holiday season is busy and many people stop fitting in time for self-care. While tempting, don’t skip those trips to the gym, don’t go overboard on heavy foods and alcohol, and keep up with stress-reducing activities such as meditation and yoga. Overindulging, especially in alcohol and smoking, can trigger and worsen depression and anxiety.

Experiencing depression, anxiety, and high levels of stress is difficult, regardless of the time of year. If you find yourself experiencing any of the signs and symptoms above for more than two weeks, consider reaching out to your doctor or a close friend or family member for help.

Sometimes efforts to reduce stress and anxiety may not help. If you find yourself feeling persistently sad, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

At Northwest Primary Care, we want you to enjoy the holiday season. If you’re experiencing signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression, we’re here to support you.