Am I depressed or is it the holiday blues?

The stress of the holiday season can bring on gloomy feelings for a lot of people. But sometimes those feelings are something more serious.

Dec 30, 2021 UPDATED
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Tis the season to be jolly….right? 

Well, maybe for some, but for others, the holidays can be the time of year that brings stress and gloom, instead of joy and laughter. The holidays can be tense and demanding and can leave some of us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. 

Feelings of sadness and melancholy during the holiday season are frequently referred to as the holiday blues. In fact, a 2015 Healthline survey reported that about 44% of Americans experience stress over the holidays. 

But are the so-called holiday blues the same as Depression-with-a-capital-D? The answer to this question isn't as clear-cut as we might imagine. Depression is a far more serious issue that certainly can crop up during the holidays, but it isn’t limited to this time of year. 

Many people who don’t typically deal with depression can struggle with the holiday blues;  symptoms of the “holiday blues” can sometimes overlap with the symptoms of depression. So how can you tell what’s a seasonal funk, and what’s something more serious?  

About 44% of Americans experience stress over the holidays.

friend comforting another

Signs and symptoms of the holiday blues

The holiday blues tend to be short-term and, relative to depression, mild. Signs generally last during the holiday months from October to December. The holiday blues can also overlap with or exacerbate other mental health disorders—including depression—so it’s important to be aware if any of the following symptoms last longer than the holiday season:     

  • Sadness which is situational

  • Feeling stressed

  • Feeling anxious 

  • Having trouble concentrating

  • Increased irritability

  • Fatigue

What causes the holiday blues? 

Various things can trigger an episode of the holiday blues, but there are several common themes to be mindful of:

Unrealistic expectations

During the holiday season, popular culture and media is sated with images of joyful, close-knit families celebrating together. This can trickle down and lead people to believe that that’s how the holidays are supposed to be. Be careful not to build up your expectations about what your holiday season will be like.


The holidays can be especially difficult for those who either cannot be with their families and friends (which many of us have experienced thanks to COVID-19) or an absence of those connections in the first place. Guarding against feelings of loneliness can help stave off the holiday blues. 

Financial stressors 

Whether gifts, dinners, traveling, or whatever else, there are seemingly endless reasons we feel we have to spend money during the holidays. Pressure from pop culture, your family—or yourself!—can lead you to overextend yourself, financially, which is obviously stressful. Sticking to a budget can prevent this particular cause of the holiday blues.   

Feeling overwhelmed 

The holiday season can be a bustle of activity—socializing and hosting and traveling and eating and celebrating. Even thinking about it can be overwhelming. Some who get the holiday blues do so because they’ve taken on too much, not set firm boundaries, or spread themselves too thin.

girl laying on bed

Signs and symptoms of depression

Depression is a mental health disorder that is unlikely to resolve on its own and at times it can require professional help. Depression is more serious than the holiday blues and, without intervention, can linger well past one season. A crucial element of depression is that it interferes with daily life, including work, home, social life, etc.  

Pay attention to the following serious signs:

  • Sadness that doesn’t lift

  • Loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable

  • Changes in weight and/or appetite

  • Frequent crying

  • Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Thoughts of death, dying, or suicide

  • Unexplained physical aches and pains

If you experience a number of these for a prolonged period, it might be wise to seek professional help.

head, what causes depression

What causes depression?

Depression is a complicated combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. People who have experienced trauma or catastrophic life events have a higher risk of developing depression, as do people with family histories of depression—though trauma or family history don’t mean depression will necessarily occur. As a result of having depression, a person’s life can become more complicated and dysfunctional. 

4 Tips for Coping

You’ll note that there’s significant overlap between the signs of depression and those of the holiday blues. The holiday blues may even exacerbate underlying depression. Both can be extremely taxing, so you must take care of yourself. Consider implementing the following:

1. Set realistic expectations 

Consider challenging your expectations. Remember that things will go wrong, that’s part of life, but it doesn’t need to derail your happiness.

2. Don’t isolate

Isolation is a risk factor for depression. Being sad or blue might make you feel like you want to hide or avoid everyone. Reach out to a friend, volunteer your time, or take on a new hobby.

3. Practice saying “no”

Overextending yourself can lead to more stress and anxiety. Whether it is a social engagement or spending more money than you feel comfortable with, learning to say “no” and setting boundaries can free you up to select the things in life that are right for you.

4. Seek professional help 

If the holiday blues feels more serious or if your symptoms do not resolve after the holidays, consider reaching out to a therapist for support. Therapists understand both the stressors that lead to the holiday blues and mental health conditions like depression. 

The holiday blues may be seasonal, but that’s no reason to diminish your feelings. If these feelings continue after the season is over, don’t avoid them. If your symptoms begin to impact the activities of your daily life, consider reaching out to a professional.

Remember, depression is a treatable disorder and with the right intervention and treatment, you can be back in the festive spirit in no time!

tips for holiday blues

Article originally published Dec 23, 2021. Updated Dec 30, 2021.

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