College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

A Blue Christmas: The Skinny on Holiday Depression

UM psychologists examine causes, symptoms and treatments.  The holidays conjure up images of gleeful children, bright decorations and family gatherings filled with smiling faces; however, holiday depression can cause some to experience a not-so-merry Christmas.

“Feeling down or blue during the holidays is very common, particularly among those who have lost a loved one or have experienced a recent major life transition,” said Todd Smitherman, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi and a specialist in anxiety and mood disorders. Holiday depression is typically associated with nostalgia about past times, as people are constantly reminded about how things used to be, Smitherman said.  “One of the most important factors in holiday sadness is one’s false belief in the myth that everyone else is having a good time and in happy relationships,” he said. “You can allow yourself to feel sad, but realize and understand that you can’t change the past.”

Seeking social support from family members, friends and even churches can help beat the holiday blues, as well as spending time with new people or volunteering to help someone less fortunate, Smitherman suggested.  Maintaining a healthful lifestyle, which includes getting plenty of sleep, eating right and exercising, may help avoid the problem.   Setting realistic expectations about the holidays is also important, he added.

Another tip Smitherman offered relates to a more scientific explanation about depression and mood swings.

“Sunlight plays a large role in our moods by regulating our circadian rhythm and various neurochemicals such as melatonin,” he said. “Making an effort to get 20 or so minutes of sunlight a day, either by being outdoors or sitting at a window, even if it’s overcast, can help tremendously.”

The don’ts of managing holiday depression include avoiding the excessive intake of alcohol, overeating and overspending.  For most people, the symptoms of holiday blues, including loneliness, anxiety, fatigue and feelings of helplessness, are short-lived and usually subside when the holiday is over and individuals return to their normal daily routines.  However, if the blues persist beyond the holidays, occur around fall or winter of every year, interfere significantly with daily functions or bring thoughts of suicide, professional assistance is recommended, said Michael Allen, UM psychology chair.

“Those suffering from these more severe depressive disorders, known as seasonal affective disorder (or SAD), need to seek immediate professional help,” Allen said.