The Holiday Blues

Appears in the December 2021 issue.

Because the holiday season is generally regarded as a time of happiness and joy, the idea of the “holiday blues” is something of a mystery to those who haven’t experienced it. But during a season in which feelings of happiness are largely assumed and expected, a lack of cheerfulness becomes that much more obvious to the person who isn’t feeling it. And when combined with the seasonal changes of winter, this depressive effect can really settle in for some people.

“The holiday or winter blues are largely due to seasonal changes—including less sunlight, darker days, and colder weather—and their impact on the brain and body, all of which can lead to a more depressed and unmotivated mood,” says Lauren Campbell, a licensed clinical social worker at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville. “While anyone can experience this,” she says, “those grieving the loss of a loved one—either recent or in the past—those coping with significant financial stressors or social pressures around the holidays, those with limited community support or strained family relationships, or those with a past diagnosis of a mood disorder may be more susceptible.”

Campbell believes that one of the most important factors in combating feelings of depression at this time of year is good self-care. Someone facing financial strain at the holidays or the social pressure of an unhealthy family situation, for example, may not be able to take any immediate action that will magically make those problems disappear. But by working on the things that they can control, and developing a practice of gratitude, it’s possible to at least fashion a better reaction to them.

“Try to create or stick to a structured routine,” Campbell advises. “Get regular physical exercise, find enjoyable hobbies that can be done inside during the winter, and make a plan to connect with loved ones regularly—but also practice healthy boundaries with loved ones when needed.”

Campbell stresses that those who notice significant changes with daily functioning as winter bears down—such as difficulty eating, sleeping, getting out of bed, or managing day-to-day responsibilities—would do well to seek out professional help. But for those with a seemingly milder case of the holiday or winter blues, it’s all about perspective. 

Photo courtesy Edward-Elmhurst Health