Holiday Blues or Depression?

Why the ’happiest season of all’ brings sadness and depression. Experts weigh in

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Instead of Joy to the World, some people feel sad, lonesome and overwhelmed during the holiday season. It may seem strange to those not experiencing those feelings, but for some, the season elicits symptoms that mimic depression or actually trigger depression.

Maribeth H. Duncan, licensed clinical social worker practicing in Buffalo, said that a few key factors differentiate holiday blues from major depression.

“Major depression is a disease and it can be triggered by a lot of different things,” Duncan said. “Holiday blues are more an environmental disorder where things trigger depression for a period of time. That will come and go, where a major depression diagnosis, it’s an ailment.”

Clinical depression typically lasts longer and is typified by deeper, more profound sadness accompanied by five or more of the following symptoms: sadness, crying, changes in sleep patterns, lack of concentration, anxiety, increased or decreased appetite, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, lower energy levels, and lower motivation. Some people experiencing depression contemplate self-harm.

Feeling sad during the holidays seems incongruent with the “happiest season of all,” but for some people, it’s stressful in a negative way.

“Holidays have a lot of stress because of finances, trying to meet unrealistic expectations, and trauma from the past,” said Wendy Baum, licensed clinical social worker practicing in Buffalo.

If the family always gathered at Mom and Dad’s to celebrate, but Dad died and now Mom lives in a condo, it can be hard to adjust to the new normal. Or perhaps the entire family is intact but has never gotten along well. Those Hallmark-perfect memories never happen.

Instead of lamenting what cannot be, embrace what works for you and let go of the rest. For example, attending a family celebration filled with put-downs and verbal arrows can cause plenty of stress. Briefly making an appearance can help keep the tradition without enduring hours of emotional pain.

It’s important to identify their source of stress and develop healthy means of addressing them. Avoidance, turning to alcohol or overspending represent unhealthy coping mechanisms.

For some people, it’s hard to adjust to the post-holiday season.

“The aftermath of the holidays is that you have all this craziness, then clean up and bills, and regrets,” said Brittany Bennett, licensed mental health counselor and owner of Bridge Over Troubled Water in Amherst. “The hype of Christmas is followed by a month of recuperating from five to six weeks of preparing.”

Instead of feeling let down with little to look forward to for the next few months, Bennett advises clients to prepare for the new year.

“Think about what you liked about last year, and things you can do without, that you can cut out,” Bennett said. “People tend to home in on what they didn’t like instead of the things that made them feel good. We need more of those things. Stick with the simple goals that are reasonable, accessible and attainable. Even if that just means a cup of coffee with a friend.”

It’s important to note that in the North, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) influences how some feel. Lack of sunlight can trigger the mood disorder since the body does not receive sufficient natural sunlight.

“We’re going into a time of SAD,” Baum said. “That lasts beyond the holidays. It’s related to amount of light we receive.”

Of course, some people may experience depression during the holidays, even if they don’t feel grief from loss or overwhelmed. Another medical condition could cause similar symptoms.

“Some medical conditions could mimic a depressive disorder, like beginning phases of thyroid disorder or diabetes,” Bennett said.

Although depression is a medical condition usually treated by medication and talk therapy, neither depression or holiday blues should be ignored.

The Beck Depression Inventory ( may help you screen yourself for depression. Or, talking about it with a primary care provider can help.