Coping with Depression Around the Holidays

For a time meant to be filled only with good cheer and high hopes for a new year, depression over the holidays is far too common, especially for students living on their own for the first time, far away from family and friends, and in the middle of the pandemic. 

For most students, with the holiday season comes huge family gatherings, parties, bake-offs, connecting with old friends, and way too much shopping (aka money-spending), but for some, it can serve as a season of self-assessment, a time to reflect on past blunders and unwanted anxiety about the future’s unknowns. 

Making it home for each of the winter holidays can be a challenge for some students, and many often have to pick and choose between family festivities or staying put in their dorm or apartment. It can be difficult to juggle school work and a full or part-time job, so come holiday time, lacking the funds to participate in festive events or traditions can bring students down. Not to mention, cramming for finals until mid-December makes gift-shopping and travel planning nearly impossible. 

To help yourself, your friends and your classmates curb depression around the holidays; it’s essential to understand the various signs, causes, and coping mechanisms available for banishing the holiday blues.

Signs & Causes of Holiday Blues & Depression

Experiencing anxiety and depression around the holidays is not uncommon, and these feelings can have a serious impact on your ability to function normally. Even the happiest of students can experience symptoms of seasonal depression. On top of the regular busy holiday season is a college student’s final exam season, and both of those seasons come with high demands and emotions that can leave your mind and body feeling exhausted.

The most common symptoms of holiday blues or depression are recurring feelings of sadness, often varying in duration and intensity. Some other common signs of holiday depression are:

  • Excessive irritability or anger
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Lack of pleasure in everyday activities
  • Lost interest in normally enjoyed activities
  • Lack of sleep or sleeping too much
  • Trouble with decision making
  • Withdrawing from relationships

One of the most common causes of holiday depression is exhaustion. Holiday (and exam) time tends to be go-go-go, and we forget to think about ourselves – self-care, sleep, and our sanity. Some other common causes of holiday depression are:

  • Financial trouble; overextending yourself, struggling to afford gifts
  • Inability to go home for the holidays; missing your family and friends
  • Nostalgia for past holidays and memories
  • Poor social support, loneliness, and isolation
  • Stress and holiday chaos can make it challenging to feel cheerful
  • Extended family, especially if you don’t get along
  • Unrealistic expectations; setting sights too high

It’s important to note that there is a significant difference between holiday blues and mild feelings of sadness that typically disappear with the holidays. The more severe conditions include Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – which is MDD with a seasonal pattern. This condition often occurs during fall and winter when it’s colder and there’s less sunlight, and the days become darker and shorter. This typically drags on until spring and the symptoms can be much more severe, whereas holiday blues or depression are often milder and fade out early in the new year following the return to school after winter break.

How to Cope with Depression Around the Holidays

Winter is the worst season for depression, and the idea of facing a global pandemic alongside it can be daunting, but for students battling the blues, just know you’re not alone. It’s important to be kind to yourself all year round, but especially during seasons where you’re more susceptible to sadness. Try to counteract your vulnerabilities or triggers by incorporating these tips to prevent holiday stress and depression:

Plan Ahead. Give yourself a day or two to rest and adjust to the changing seasons, then get back to a consistent and balanced schedule, setting goals, and planning your days. 

Set Limits. Enjoy the sweets, the eggnog, the cocktails, or in some cases the mocktails, but do so in moderation. Instead of stress eating, set a limit for yourself: eat one cookie rather than two, and drink a glass of water between sugary or alcoholic beverages.

Vitamin D. Get your sunshine! Your body needs vitamin D to stay functioning. When setting your schedule, make time to be in the sunlight. Go for a brisk walk, take your dog out for a stroll around the park. You don’t want Fido to get depression around the holidays, either.

Exercise. Winter is not only the worst season for depression, but it’s the worst season for exercise. It’s easy to forget about the gym during the holidays, but it’s essential to get your heart pumping whether it’s with yoga, heavy lifting, or a light jog – you’d be surprised what 30 minutes a day can do for the soul.

Cut Back on Obligations. Pick and choose who, where, when, and what gets your attention over the holidays. Reduce obligations and participate in hobbies or activities that you find enjoyable. It’s okay to say no sometimes.

Unplug. Between social media, seasonal tunes, holiday TV classics, and countless themed commercials, you are sure to be on holiday overload. Give your brain a much-needed break and disconnect from the noise for a bit. 

Try Something New. Look into the socially-distanced events and activities your community is hosting. Things like volunteering, caroling, or joining a recreational winter sport – anything that jolts you out of the same old pattern that may be draining you or dragging you down. If you choose to join in on any community fun, be sure to take the CDC-recommended preventative measures for keeping yourself and others safe during the pandemic. 

Self-Care. Self-care can be challenging for students, and while trying to stay afloat amidst finals and figuring out plans back home, you might forget to nurture your body and your mental health. Find a good book, watch your favorite show, soak in the tub, stock up on skincare, spark the candles and dim the lights – whatever it may be, think about how you can treat yourself well over the holidays.

Because the holidays mark an approaching new year, reflecting on the past year and uncertainty about the future can also bring on overwhelming feelings of stress, fear, regret, and doubt. Perhaps the most crucial tip for coping with depression around the holidays is to find the good. Balance your expectations and look for happiness in everything you do. No two years will ever be the same. Reflect on the past but use it only as a learning opportunity to progress in the upcoming year. Remind yourself about the positives in your life as well as the positives about yourself. Wherever you are – be there, present in the moment.

If you find that your holiday sadness persists, causing you significant problems or distress, and extending longer than the typical duration of holiday blues, talk to a doctor or mental health professional to determine if the symptoms you are experiencing are signs of holiday depression or a more significant mood disorder.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, don’t wait to get help. Call or text one of the mental health hotlines right away, available 24/7, and completely confidential. There are caring, experienced people just waiting to help – no judgment or pressure.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741
Campus Crisis Hotline: 512-245-2208
Campus Counseling Center: