For many people, the holidays are a time to look forward to. Even with the stresses of meal planning, travel and gift giving, many of us still find it to be a happy time of year. But that isn’t always the case. For some people, the holidays can be a difficult and emotionally exhausting time.

A survey by the American Psychological Association found that 38% of people felt their stress levels increased during the holiday season. Stress can lead to an increased risk of illness, substance misuse, and higher rates of anxiety and depression. This was especially felt during the pandemic, when there were so many questions about how to keep events and family gatherings during COVID-19 safe.

Feeling depressed during the holidays is a very real, but treatable concern. We’ll cover answers to common questions about seasonal depression, as well as how to find help – and support others – this holiday season.

Do depression rates rise during the holidays?

Yes, patterns of increased rates of depression during the holidays have been documented by doctors and mental health professionals for years. And the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 64% of people living with a mental illness reported that their conditions worsened around the holidays.

Why does this happen? When the holidays come around, they bring a variety of events, social interactions and challenges. Sometimes the resulting stress has to do with the pressure of how many responsibilities someone has. In other cases, it can be tied to complicated memories of the past or anxiety about family gatherings.

But aside from the holidays, many people experience something called Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) with a seasonal pattern (also known as seasonal affective disorder). Seasonal affective disorder is clinical depression that tends to appear in the late fall and can last until early spring. It’s known to be linked with changes in light during the wintertime, so it’s more common in northern climates. The limited exposure to natural light can impact our body’s rhythms and neurochemical balance. It can change your perspective when the days seem shorter, darkness lasts longer, and cold weather keeps us cooped up indoors.

Research shows that clinical depression with a seasonal pattern impacts as much as 6% of the population. And it’s also common for people who don’t normally struggle with depression to experience it temporarily during the winter months.

What causes depression during the holidays?

The holidays are a stereotypically cheerful time when everyone is meant to be surrounded by loved ones and enjoying every second of the season. But when someone isn’t feeling happy or cheerful, or if they can’t be near their loved ones, the apparent cheer surrounding them can make them feel even more down, and often alone with their feelings – which deepens symptoms of depression.

The holiday months are spent differently by everyone, and personal circumstances play a big part in how and why someone may experience stress or sadness. But here are some of the most common causes for depression during the holidays.

  • Generalized stress (this may be due to responsibilities, more social interactions, and less time to relax and recharge)
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Pressures of perceived obligations (may be related to travel, meal planning, gift giving and more)
  • Financial stress
  • High expectations – often caused by the exaggerated portrayal of the holidays on TV, in movies, the media and on social media
  • Travel stress - from crowded airports to traffic jams, plus the effects of jet lag, there’s plenty to worry about during this high stakes travel time
  • Stressful family gatherings
  • First holiday season after the passing of someone you love
  • Loneliness
  • Disappointment over not being able to see family and friends
  • Pandemic isolation and worries about gathering safely

What are the symptoms of seasonal depressive disorder and the holiday blues?

The symptoms of seasonal depression are similar to the symptoms of depression that occurs at any time of the year.

  • Tiredness or lack of energy
  • No longer enjoying activities that you previously liked
  • Persistent feelings of guilt, worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Change in personal relationships
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Change in appetite, or weight loss or gain
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Difficulty working
  • General irritability
  • Self-harm

Can someone who normally does not suffer from depression be depressed over the holidays?

Yes. This can be related to a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder with a seasonal pattern, but not always. The holiday season comes with its own set of stressors and expectations, both internally and externally. Being overwhelmed by these holiday-related stressors can lead to symptoms of depression.

What should loved ones do to support someone with symptoms of depression during the holidays?

Check in with your family and friends often

Even the ones who seem like they’re doing well. Sometimes people are able to smile and hide their feelings of anxiety or depression behind a brave face. When really, they could benefit from talking to someone about how they’re truly doing. When someone takes time and care to reach out, it reinforces that we are seen and have supportive people in our lives.

Listen with sympathy

You don’t have to understand how someone is feeling to have respect for it. Being there to let someone express their feelings in a safe environment can be very impactful for someone going through depression. Try to engage by responding with supportive statements or asking follow-up questions. Avoid telling them to cheer up or saying “Well, things could be worse.” These kinds of remarks can invalidate and minimalize the other person’s feelings, which might make them regret opening up. To learn more about what to say and what not to say to someone who is struggling, Make It has some great resources.

Gently suggest talking to a professional

Encourage your friend or loved one to meet with a mental health professional. They can do an individualized assessment to help determine what that specific person needs in order to start feeling better. With professional support, people with depression (whether seasonal or otherwise) can learn long-term ways to manage stress, navigate complex emotions and situations, and find peace – especially during the holidays.

What can someone with depression do during the holidays to take care of themselves?

There are many ways to take care of your mental well-being during the holidays. Some of these strategies may work better for you than others. But be sure to try a few to find what works best and makes a difference in how you’re feeling.

  • Make sure your expectations are realistic. Ask yourself if you’re expecting too much from yourself. Or perhaps whether you’re expecting too much from someone else. Then, see how those expectations are making you feel. Are they helpful or stressful?
  • Practice saying ‘no’. You’re one person, and there’s only so much you can do in a given day or a given holiday. Remind yourself that it’s okay to say no.
  • Limit external sources of holiday pressure. Maybe take a break from social media if seeing other people’s holiday photos is causing you to engage in self-comparison. Find winter activities to enjoy (either solo or with others) that aren’t associated with the holidays – like snowshoeing, for example.
  • Don’t slack on self-care. If going to yoga helps you cope with stress, keep doing that. If spending time with friends or family helps, connect with them often. Take time for yourself and be open to experimenting with new self-care strategies.
  • Talk to a mental health professional. Talk therapy can help you cope with stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression. And if you’re dealing with holiday-related stress or season affective disorder, your therapist may also recommend light box therapy, medication or helpful lifestyle changes to help alleviate some of your symptoms.

Don’t wait to talk to someone about the holiday blues

The holidays can present a number of challenges. And when it comes to stress and mental health matters, sometimes there’s a tendency to want to wait it out and see how things go. But if you’re feeling anxious or depressed, now is the time to talk to someone.

Connect with trusted family members or friends to share how you’re feeling and let some of that weight off your shoulders. Since stress during the holidays is so common, they might even be feeling the same way. Knowing someone else can relate and is there for support can make you both feel better. You can also reach out to a mental health professional. Together, you’ll be able to talk through what you’re experiencing, find ways to lower your stress and get back to feeling more like yourself again – this holiday season and beyond.