Holiday blues: How to counteract seasonal sadness

Sometimes, the very things people love about the holidays -- the anticipation, the hustle and bustle, the celebrations -- can leave some of us with a sense of sadness, emptiness and even depression.

Depression illustration
Hector Casanova color illustration of a depressed woman sitting in a corner under the shadow of a Christmas tree with small gift. The Kansas City Star 2005

Sometimes, the very things people love about the holidays -- the anticipation, the hustle and bustle, the celebrations -- can leave some of us with a sense of sadness, emptiness and even depression.

When such feelings arise, being aware and "doing the opposite" of our natural tendencies may be among the best ways to combat them, according to a behavioral health provider at Mayo Clinic.

It doesn't help that, at this time of year, people's expectations about Christmas "are through the roof," said Margaret Stump, licensed family and marriage counselor with Mayo Clinic Health System, Mankato, Minn.

People can't force their emotions, she said. "If we don't feel something, we can't 'should' anything. We feel what we feel."

"The thing about Christmas is, I doubt there's any time or season during the year that we have greater expectations for," she said. "If we had a 'perfect Christmas' in the past, it was probably at age 6 or 7.


"If not, we've seen it on TV."

The media -- TV, movies, magazines -- create "extraordinary expectations of what Christmas should be," she said. "We can't look at old movies or the fabulous recipes and feel what we're doing is sufficient."

With such high expectations, "it's easy to feel we're not meeting them, and this invites a grave cost" to one's emotional well-being.

Lost loved ones

For many people, "Christmas is a time of family," she said. "These are times we record through the years."

Looking at old photos, "we remember those people whom we have lost and have appropriate feelings of grief and loss."

The reason that the holidays stir feelings of sadness may be explained by a concept called "state-dependent learning," Stump said. "When events occurred in the midst of emotion, when the event occurs again, those emotions arise again.

"We don't grieve only in the present," she said. "Loss is very closely linked to memory.


"The more emotionally charged the memory, the more it links those emotions together (and) the easier we bring it up ... For example, if your dog dies, it may bring up other memories of loss -- like when you lost your father."

Light, movement and sleep

Christmas may challenge our emotional wellness "because it comes in winter," Stump said. "Daylight changes significantly."

If you're feeling down, "you may wonder, 'what's wrong with me?'" she said. "With seasonal affective disorder (SAD), people are really having some physical response to changes in light."

As winter sets in, we are not much different from bears preparing to hibernate, she said.

"Bears get grumpy, eat more carbohydrates and don't want to socialize."

People tend to respond to loss of light "with very similar symptoms," she said. "We feel sleepy; we have irritability, loss of energy and social withdrawal; we overeat.

"People feel like they want to nap for the winter."


If you have a tendency to feel kind of blue, these symptoms "can encourage greater depression," she said. "Awareness of that is one of the first things that can help."

A conscious decision to "do the opposite" can also help, she said. "Get outside during the daytime, even if it's cold."

Several "good studies" have confirmed the value of light therapy (exposure to an artificial light source) to well-being, she said, "but it's often not necessary for everybody."

Stump recommends incorporating physical activity into your day.

"Just getting some movement really helps for any kind of depression," she said. In addition to elevating your mood, "you will sleep better."

If you feel vulnerable to sadness this time of year, "structure your sleep more carefully," she said.

Stump suggests limiting sleep to 8 or 8½ hours a night.

"Sleeping more than that doesn't make you less fatigued," she said. "Some people fall into a habit of sleeping more than 8 or 8½ hours, but they still feel sleepy."

More physical movement and a controlled sleep routine should help your mood, she said.

Get social

While feelings of sadness may tempt people to withdraw from social situations, it's a temptation that should be avoided, Stump said.

"Engaging with other people changes how we feel a lot," she said.

Participating in volunteer activities "is an opportunity to simply give, whether it's your time or money, and this can even help in terms of those expectations," she said. You may not have a "perfect Christmas," but you can make a child's holiday brighter.

Getting out and spending time with others is important, "if not necessarily for yourself, then for others," she said.

To illustrate her point, Stump said she likes to use the story of the little boy who asked his grandfather why people fight.

"The grandfather said that in every person there are two wolves," she said. "The boy asked, 'Which one lives?' The grandfather said, 'Whichever one you feed.'"

Some people may see others having fun and enjoying activities, "but it's not something they have a sense of sharing in," she said.

"You shouldn't try to pretend to feel what you don't feel, but it's your choice to feed the 'wolf' of sadness, despair and loneliness or the 'wolf' of comfort, kindness and being there for others."

Normal or not

If sadness comes and goes with the holidays, "I wouldn't call it being 'depressed,'" she said. "I would call it the effect of expectations."

For those who suffer a deep sadness every year around Christmastime, she would suspect that "their experience of the holidays, when they were young, was pretty awful," she said. "All that state-dependent learning has almost been a curse to them.

"It would be helpful to them to have someone to talk to."

These people "are allowed to begin to make their own good memories -- maybe by getting involved in volunteer activities -- to put together blessings of Christmas for themselves and others."

For people she is treating for depression, the extra pressures --- greater expectations and financial worries -- "can interfere" with their ability to cope.

These pressures "make those normal challenges that we all deal with feel insurmountable."

Patients "realize that depression is a challenge and burden they are facing, and depression will tell them they're not capable.

"That's the voice of depression, not the voice of Christmas or of family," she said. "It's important to discern the difference."

Depression is characterized by the inability to enjoy activities that you used to enjoy, she said,

"With depression come suicidal thoughts," she said. They are "a function of depression."

When people are in a depressed state, and aren't enjoying activities they once enjoyed, "they have a tendency to think, 'I must be doing this wrong.' When that happens they do it even harder, which can lead to further depressed thoughts.

"That's the 'unholy trinity': depressed thoughts, loss of joy, and suicidal thoughts. They are clear signs of depression."

During the holidays, "if a person is feeling overwhelmed and ... there's no joy in doing things they have enjoyed, and they're having really significant depressive thoughts, it would be a good idea to talk to a (mental health care) provider.

"We don't have to do this by ourselves."

Tips to combat holiday depression:

• Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.

• Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift spirits and broaden friendships.

• Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as visiting through Skype, sharing pictures and emails.

• Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.

• Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties, so you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.

• Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.

• Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.


Knudson covers health and family. Call her at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572 ext.1107 or email .

Related Topics: HEALTH
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
What To Read Next
So it’s cold. So life goes on.
"It’s easy to make assumptions about a person based on their outfit or their day job," Coming Home columnist Jessie Veeder writes. "I mean, my dad used to work in a bank and he also broke horses and played in a bar band at night."
This week, gardening columnist Don Kinzler fields questions on hibiscus plants, beating apple trees and how long grass seeds will last.
If it plays well in Winnipeg, it’ll be a hit in Fargo, and all points within planting distance.