Many factors can lead to the holiday blues, says Tracy Cohn, a Radford University psychology professor and licensed clinical psychologist, but there are numerous ways you can avoid feelings of sadness and anxiety.
"Our thinking has a lot to do with whether or not we’re feeling depressed," Cohn said. "The holidays are, for many people, a time of really strong positive memories, such as being around family, hanging stockings and other holiday themes."
Many others, however, often have sad memories around the holidays, such as the loss of a loved one, which can cause holiday blues and bouts with depression that may linger well past the holiday season.
Cohn notes two schools of thought on why some people feel a little low around the holidays. One involves brain chemistry, perhaps low serotonin, and the other is just plain "stinking thinking."
"This happens a lot with parents," Cohn said. "Parents beat themselves up over things they feel they should have done for their kids at the holidays, whether it's baking cookies for school or buying the perfect presents."
Cohn said people need to monitor their thoughts and words to recognize when they knock themselves around by using such phrases as "I should do this" or "I must do that."
So how do you know if the blues are setting in, leading to longer-term depression for you or someone you know? Cohn advises looking for these symptoms:
- Lack of motivation. "People just lose their spunk to do things and take care of things like they previously did."
- Increased or decreased sleeping.
- Increased or decreased eating.
- Lack of enjoyment. "For example, you used to love shopping for gifts, but you have lost that desire."
- Thoughts of death.
- Lack of concentration.
- Irritability. "This symptom occurs longer than one day," Cohn said. "If people become grumpy or irritable over several days, that could be a symptom of depression."
- Feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
Once you know what to look for, how do you fix the blues? Cohn said one of the best fixes is to be gentle with yourself. No more "stinking thinking."
"We can all have thoughts about not being a worthwhile person, not being a good parent or not being loveable," Cohn said. "If we can be more gentle with ourselves—don't use our thoughts to beat ourselves up—it can help us with beating depression."
Another suggested way to beat the holiday blues is to get more exercise. "This seems to be a key piece for people to avoid depression," Cohn said. "I'm not talking about competing in a triathlon. I'm talking about getting outside for a walk, scooping snow off the driveway, that sort of thing."
Another depression-beating activity can be volunteering in the community, Cohn noted. "People often feel better when they help others and feel like they are part of something that is bigger than themselves."