Holiday Blues: Dealing with Mental Health During the Holidays

For many, mental health and the holidays are closely related. 2021 has been a challenging year, and as it draws to a close, we want to urge everyone to have a mentally, physically, and financially healthy holiday season.

The financial fallout from the last few years of restrictions may live on into next year as well. As we celebrate the holidays and finish out the year, our focus is on helping people find peace, whether emotional or financial.

We’d encourage you to keep compassion in mind this holiday season and go the extra mile to let family, friends, and loved ones know that you’re thinking of them and care about their wellbeing.

Read on to learn how you can help others achieve good mental health during the holidays. Sad dog in Santa's hat lying on floor at home.

Why Do People Feel Down During the Holidays?

  1. Major life events are especially impactful this time of year. If you’ve lost a loved one during the previous year or gone through a divorce, then this will be your first Christmas without someone you used to share the holidays with. That can trigger depression or anxiety that can mount as the other pressures of the season build.
  2. Illness hits hard during the holidays, as the pace of the holiday season kicks in and financial pressures grow. What might have been a manageable level of extra stress and expenses in previous years, can become too much to bear if you or a loved one is going through a serious health crisis.
  3. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, isn’t the same thing as the “holiday blues”, but the two usually coincide. Those with SAD are affected by the changing seasons, whether that’s a change in sleep patterns, a decrease in physical activity, or a decrease in exposure to sunlight. People with SAD will have a harder time managing the stress of the holidays if they’re already being negatively affected by the winter season.
  4. Lack of good nutrition can affect us all, even if we don’t have a full-blown seasonal affective disorder. Eating carbohydrate-laden junk food during winter months when physical activity is diminished is not a recipe for good physical or mental health.
  5. Debt is what brings people to see us, and many people see an increase in debt during the holidays. There are so many obligations each of us feel that it can seem easier to just charge all of the expenses that come during the holidays—gifts, decorations, meals, and gatherings. But it’s not easier. Using debt to finance holiday expenses only kicks the can down the road and causes a bigger hardship later.

Talk to one of our debt coaches for free and we can help you solve your debt issues.

Coping with social isolation and loneliness

It’s tough to be isolated from the ones you love, and right now millions of us are still going through isolation due to global travel restrictions. You may have missed Thanksgiving with your full family, and you may miss Christmas Dinner and New Year’s celebrations as well.

It’s not easy to deal with, especially after so many months of being isolated from each other.

Think about it; for many crimes, the worst punishment we mete out is to keep the offender in solitary confinement. But now, health concerns have forced isolation on millions of people who’ve done nothing wrong.

Tip for spreading holiday cheer this year:

Make sure everyone on your holiday shopping list hears from you during this holiday season. Think of anyone you may have forgotten and set aside some time to reach out. The best gift you may be able to give is to break someone’s isolation as winter sets in.

Identifying depression during the holidays

Mental health and the holidays can bring on bouts of sadness. Holiday depression isn’t a new phenomenon. Many people are prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and regularly feel “down” this time of year.

Stress from busy holidays or end-of-year activities contributes to this, as well as enhanced feelings of loss. People who have lost loved ones throughout the year feel renewed pain when they realize this is their first Christmas without someone special. We know a lot of us will have some tough times during the holidays this year.

SAD is when depression is regularly focused around a particular time of year; if someone feels depression during a particular time frame for more than 2 years in a row, they may have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Some people are more prone to this in the winter because of shorter days with less sunlight, or reduced activity due to winter weather.

Depression signs might include:

  • Unusual weight loss or gain, or change in appetite
  • Feeling tired or fatigued too frequently
  • Inability to sleep, or oversleeping frequently
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of joy or interest in things that typically would be pleasurable
  • Unexplained sadness, coming on seemingly without a clear reason
  • Feeling unworthy, guilty, or anxious

How to help someone who’s dealing with holiday blues

If you’ve got someone in your life who is isolated or may have problems with mental health during the holidays, here are some mental health tips and ways you can be there for them, even remotely:

  • Let your loved ones know that you are grateful to have them in your life and they are important to you.
  • Let them express how they feel without judgment. If anyone lets you know they’re suffering emotionally right now, make sure they know it’s perfectly normal not to feel happy all the time, even during the holidays.
  • If loved ones were lost this year, remember—and remind others in your family—that it’s okay to feel happiness during the holidays. Some people feel ‘survivor’s guilt’ and think it’s not appropriate to be joyous during their first holidays after a loss. But bear in mind that the loved ones you lost would want you to be happy, and remember the good times you had with them along with the sadness of the loss.
  • Encourage mental health counseling if necessary. If you or a loved one needs professional help, remember there is nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing wrong with reaching out and asking. Tell your loved ones it’s okay to need help sometimes, especially in a year like this one.
  • Schedule some remote activities. It’s nice to reach out and chat with friends and family who might be feeling isolated. A good way to boost morale remotely might be to schedule a specific time for a longer online get-together. Plan to meet up on Zoom or FaceTime. Start a book club, have a streaming movie “watch party” or play a game online—have something on the calendar that everyone can look forward to attending.
  • Include old-fashioned correspondence. Send written letters or postcards. When you’re talking to your remote loved ones online or on the phone, tell them “I mailed you a card.” Give them a reason to look forward to checking the mailbox.
  • Be patient, and positive. The world is a tough enough place right now, so avoid conflict or blaming others for their own problems. Look for positive solutions and reasons to look forward to a better future. Do be firm if your loved one needs help and refuses to ask for it. Caring about someone sometimes means being tough and making them get the help they need. But do so with empathy and without judgment.
  • Keep an eye on physical health. During the holidays, some people’s health suffers due to bad food and excessive drinking. Keep an eye on your physical wellness and that of your loved ones—remind everyone to stay active, even if they’re confined to their homes.

For immediate issues, don’t take any chances.

If you have clinical depression or seasonal affective disorder, don’t take any chances with your mental health. Get professional help. Serious mental health issues might require medication, while other kinds of anxiety and depression can be helped by talking to someone about your feelings. If you or someone you know are in immediate danger, dial 9-1-1. Don’t rely on any website for a diagnosis or treatment.

Get help – mental health resources

There are many resources from national organizations and websites that can offer more information and help. Here are some of them:

  • Crisis Text Line
    • US and Canada: text HOME to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Toll-Free)
  • American Foundation For Suicide Prevention (AFSP)
    • Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
    • Website: afsp.org
  • SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

Talk to a debt coach

Debt coaching can really help if your holiday blues are triggered by financial concerns. A financial coach is a neutral 3rd party whose job isn’t to pass judgment or assess blame. They’re here to help. Some people find it’s easier to talk to a professional about their spending issues than a loved one or family member who they might not want to disappoint.
Credit.org’s debt coaches are real people who often face the same real-life financial problems that you do. It’s completely free to talk to one of our coaches and they can help you find a personalized and realistic solution to your debt.

Address the reasons for your feelings

Everybody’s anxiety is triggered by a unique factor. Talk through your feelings and uncover why you feel stress or anxiety, then find ways to tackle those specific causes.

      • Get enough exercise — for a lot of people, activity patterns change during the winter months. You might need to start an exercise regimen to ensure you’re getting enough activity.
      • Eat well — don’t succumb to bad dietary habits. Busy holidays mean fast food lunches and eating more desserts and sugary snacks than you’re probably used to. Keep an eye on your food intake and make sure you’re eating balanced and nutritious meals.
      • Limit alcohol intake — if you’re already feeling down, alcohol won’t help. This might be a time of celebratory drinking for many people, but if you’re feeling the holiday blues, don’t make those feelings worse by adding alcohol.
      • Get enough sleep — for various reasons, your sleep patterns are likely to be disrupted during the holidays. Take measures to ensure you’re getting a full night’s sleep every day, and take extra naps if you need them. Lack of sleep is a major cause of depression during the winter months.
      • Celebrate the good things — if you lost a loved one this year, remember the joy you had with them. Yes, it’s painful to go through the holidays after a loss, but if you’re feeling that pain of loss, then the times you are missing must have been good ones. Let yourself reminisce about your lost loved ones and how they always made the holidays brighter.
      • Commit to your good decisions — if this is your first holiday season after a divorce, then you’re probably feeling some strong emotions. But remember, if ending your marriage was the right decision, then acknowledge that the changes you made were for the best, even if they’re making this holiday season tougher.

Don’t overextend your energy

Many of us commit to too many holiday activities and obligations every year. You don’t have to buy a lavish gift for everyone, and you don’t have to have a perfectly decorated home. Take control of your time and only commit to what you can comfortably handle.

Write down your plans and goals for the new year

Put as much of your life in writing as you can. Make to-do lists and stick to them. Write up meal plans to make it easier to eat healthy during the holidays. Create a written budget to control your spending. The more you can write down your goals and plans, the more in control you will be, and the holiday blues will be easier to conquer.

Plan to budget early for the holidays

Speaking of written budgets, it’s really important this time of year to have a plan for your finances. Spend some time assessing your current financial situation, and create a plan to start the new year on the best possible footing.

  • Start with a write-up of your holiday budget and expenses — If you’ve already budgeted in previous holidays, this will be easy. If not, that’s okay—next year’s holiday budget will be much easier after you create one this year.
      • Check old bank statements, credit card receipts, etc — Put together a picture of what you spent in previous years and come up with an estimate of where your money is going this year. Getting this info down on paper puts you in control and gives you a way to take emotions out of the equation—worry less about how you feel about your financial situation, and focus on what you think about it. This will help you push the blues aside and assess your situation more clinically.
  • Track what you spend — it’s okay if you aren’t able to stick to your budget perfectly, so long as you faithfully track what you do spend. This will make it easier to figure out where you went wrong and avoid making mistakes in the future. It’ll also be useful info for next year’s budget. A little extra work today can make every future holiday season brighter and easier to bear.
  • Get a head start on your new year’s resolutions — if you know you’re going to resolve to get your debt under control in a few weeks, don’t wait. Start today and control your spending wherever you can.

The best is yet to come

We hope everyone can make the best of the holidays during trying times and look forward to happier holidays next year. That’s the ultimate takeaway from 2021—things can only get better! So be there for each other, and get (and give) help where it’s needed.

If your finances are the thing that’s getting you down this holiday season, talk to a certified financial coach, free of charge, for expert advice. Happy holidays!

Speak to our certified Financial Coaches to review all of your options and discuss best strategies for getting out of debt.Speak to our certified Financial Coaches to review all of your options and discuss best strategies for getting out of debt.

About The Author

Melinda Opperman is an exceptional educator who lives and breathes the creation and implementation of innovative ways to motivate and educate community members and students about financial literacy. Melinda joined credit.org in 2003 and has over 19 years experience in the industry.