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Mental Health

It’s OK To Be Sad On Christmas

Year after year, the holiday season approaches in full swing. Holiday decorations line the shelves of stores, and colorful lights adorn the roofs of neighbors’ cheery homes. Starbucks and local coffee shops release their hot and cozy holiday beverages, peppermint mocha galore. The nostalgic scent of eggnog and evergreen trees lingers in the air, and the fire crackles in the fireplace, filling the house with warmth. Christmas music plays on the radio, with rich and syrupy voices promising that the holiday season is “the most wonderful time of the year.” 

Yet for some, Christmastime is not the most wonderful time of the year; instead, the season marks a time of let-downs, grief, and stress. While the holiday season is perpetually advertised as a joyous and cheerful time, that is certainly not always the case. 

Although Christmas is nevertheless my favorite holiday, it has been accompanied by sadness — and an inescapable, indescribable feeling of loss — during the past few years. Not only a loss of innocence (as I now know that my parents are actually Santa Claus and were eating the cookies I left out year after year as a child) but also, the tragic loss of loved ones. 

A few years ago, both of my grandmothers passed away within a couple of weeks of each other in December, during the peak of the holiday season. My family and I traveled back and forth from the west coast to the east coast to attend both of their separate funerals. Celebrating Christmas that year felt sour; spending the holiday without my grandmothers didn’t feel the same, and none of my family members really felt like celebrating the holiday of joy when we felt so far from that. And although it’s been several years since they passed away, the holiday season always retriggers some of those sad feelings for me; of mourning, of grief. 

It turns out I’m not the only one who sometimes feels sad around the holidays. According to VeryWell Mind, the “holiday blues” constitute feelings of sadness that persist throughout the holiday season, typically through the months of November and December. Psychologist Kurt Michael, Ph.D. explains to Her Campus that although the “holiday blues” isn’t a formal or official diagnosis, the holiday season can nonetheless “be a painful reminder of the past or the unpleasantness of current circumstances.”

According to a survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with pre-existing mental illness reported that the holidays worsen their conditions. Some people also struggle with major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, which is also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Typically, SAD is triggered by cold weather and less light, all typical of the winter (and holiday) months. According to a study by Dr. Steve Targum and Dr. Norman Rosenthal, at least 6% of Americans are affected by SAD, and another 14% of the population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes — like the holiday blues.

For some, the holiday season also raises financial stress, which contributes to increased feelings of anxiety and sadness. According to a 2019 survey, 61% of Americans dread the holidays due to increased spending; and due to the heightened sense of mass consumerism that accompanies Christmastime, the average consumer spends around $600 for the holidays. For unemployed college students, the societal pressure of spending excessive amounts of money on gifts for loved ones can be burdensome and stress-inducing. 

Fortunately, there is a myriad of coping mechanisms to help navigate when the season isn’t feeling so merry and bright. 

One of the primary ways to nip the holiday blues in the bud is to lower expectations. Oftentimes, there are very high expectations surrounding the holiday season. Think: “I can’t wait to get this Christmas gift!” or “I’m going to have the best time with my family this year!” or “My BFF is going to love the gift I got them!” — and we get tremendously disappointed when these expectations aren’t met. Although our expectations are optimistic, they are not always realistic — and when our expectations aren’t fulfilled, we are doused in disappointment. 

“We are told and led to expect that these kinds of events or times should be happy or exciting or emotionally nourishing, and this is not always the case,” says Victor Schwartz, MD, the CEO and director of Mind Strategies. “These expectations can lead people to feel disappointed or let down. This can be particularly striking when people are alone or far from family or friends — and, it can be true when people are with family or friends and there is conflict, tension, or strife. Even when things are pretty good, if your expectations are of something special or incredible, you might still find yourself disappointed that things are not as amazing as anticipated.”

Along a similar vein, another way to cope with the holiday blues is to be warier about your social media use. Yes, yes, I know we’ve all heard before that social media is bad for your mental health in general, but it can be especially harmful if you’re already experiencing the holiday blues. For example: Seeing peers smiling with their happy extended families on Instagram. Holiday gift hauls on TikTok. FOMO is very much intensified during the holidays, but it’s important to recognize that social media is merely a highlight reel and that every single person, no matter how happy they look, has something else going on behind the scenes. Try minimizing your social media use and see if that helps improve your blues. 

For some, the holidays can especially be triggering due to family problems — whether it stems from familial trauma, conflict, or otherwise. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take some time to step away from the family when opening presents or sitting down for Christmas dinner. It’s okay — and normal — to set boundaries and to take some time for yourself. 

Grief and loss also play a saddening role around the holidays, which is something I personally struggle with around Christmastime in light of my grandmothers passing away. Additionally, with the added layer of COVID-19, which has taken the lives of over 700,000 Americans, people are experiencing a new kind of collective loss. Whether you’ve experienced a personal loss recently or you’re missing family and friends this time of year, you are not alone. 

“The holiday and memories of earlier times shared with loved ones can trigger sadness when we no longer have these people in our lives. This is a particularly timely concern given the terrible losses so many have suffered during the COVID pandemic,” Dr. Schwartz tells Her Campus. “Trying to be together with other family or friends who might have also known the person you’ve lost can create a kind of bridge to the memory of those lost. Doing things to honor your loved one’s memory — like helping a charity or cause they cared about or even making a dish they liked or listening to music that they enjoyed — are ways of maintaining a positive connection.” 

Practicing gratitude, as cheesy as it sounds, can also help alleviate the holiday blues. Even if the holiday season isn’t all it’s cut out to be, there is always something to be grateful for. “It may sound simple, but trying to focus on and appreciate the things you do have and that is going well — even while acknowledging sadness or disappointment — can help you to feel better,” Dr. Schwartz tells Her Campus. There are numerous ways to practice gratitude, from keeping a gratitude journal to letting your loved ones know that you appreciate them.

Although these coping mechanisms can help, it is always important to recognize that seeking professional support may be beneficial. “From a professional standpoint, seeking support through a 24/7 service like Crisis Text Line (text ‘start’ to 741-741) is a great option for some,” Dr. Michael tells Her Campus. “For other situations, including the experience of significant depression or even fleeting suicidal thoughts, a referral to a mental health therapist is probably the best option.”

And when all else fails, remember that the holidays — and the blues that accompany them — are only temporary. We’ll get through this season together. 

Experts
Dr. Kurt Michael, BA, MS, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Appalachian State University
Dr. Victor Schwartz, MD, CEO & Director, Mind Strategies

Sources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). “Covid Data Tracker Weekly Review.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/covidview/index.html

LendingTree. (2019). “61% of Americans Are Dreading the Holidays Due to Spending.” https://www.lendingtree.com/debt-consolidation/study-holiday-spending/.

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2014). “Mental Health and the Holiday Blues.” https://www.nami.org/Press-Media/Press-Releases/2014/Mental-health-and-the-holiday-blues.

Targum, Steven D., MD, and Rosenthal, Norman, MD. Seasonal Affective Disorder. (2008). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2686645/.

Zoë is a national contributing writer and was formerly a summer 2021 editorial intern at Her Campus. She is also a senior at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles where she studies English and public relations.
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