How Holidays Affect Mental Health

Updated July 25, 2022
sad woman struggling with holiday stress

For many, the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year. Family and friends come together, there's a ton of festive activities to do, and the cold weather means lots of warm blankets and hot chocolate. There is a lot to celebrate during the holidays. However, it's not always merry and bright at every corner.

The holidays can also bring a lot of stress due to the large number of social gatherings, financial costs, and other challenges that people experience. In addition, the colder weather and shorter days can cause people to feel low and develop what is known as the winter blues. If the holiday season has ever made you feel low, you're not alone. In fact, many people notice changes to their mental health during the holidays. But how exactly does the holiday season affect people, and what can they do to protect their mental health?

Challenges of the Holiday Season

The holidays are often remembered for the joy that they bring to people. But what about their challenges? The truth is that the holiday season isn't all turkeys and tinsel. There are a lot of elements that come with it that can create a lot of stress for people during this festive time of year.

People have to plan social get-togethers, figure out work and school schedules, and remember to have a good time all at once. That's a lot for someone to handle. And it's not just one week of events. For four months from October to January, people are wrapped up in the holiday season. This means that there is a lot of time for challenges to occur.

Financial Worries

The holiday season can bring with it financial stress. You may be worried about spending extra money during these months and how it will align with your budget. If your family swaps gifts with loved ones, brings thank you presents to your children's teachers, or packs housewarming gifts at a party, these things can really add up and cause people financial stress. Also, holiday finances may cause people to worry about disappointing family members and friends with gifts, food, or the amount of quality time you can spend.

Lots of Social Gatherings

The holiday season brings loved ones together, which means that you might be asked to attend an abundance of social gatherings. It can be draining to attend one event after the other, especially as your schedule is filled throughout the season. You may also feel obligated to spend as much time with friends and family as possible, which can cause stress and make you want to over-commit in order to please others. In addition, these gatherings might also make you feel a social pressure to decorate, spend more money, and continue to attend festivities.

Reminders of Loved Ones

When people celebrate with their friends and family, it can remind them of loved ones that have passed away that are no longer able to celebrate the holiday season. This can cause people to feel sad and lonely during the holidays, especially if they were particularly attached to a family member or if the holiday meant something special to them. It can also leave people feeling isolated if others around them haven't experienced what they are going through.

Events at Your House

Hosting events of your own can also be a challenge during the holidays. It may be costly to provide food and drinks, and it can be stressful to cook for a large number of people. There's also a lot of planning involved in hosting an event that can add even more to your plate, and it can be stressful to get your house cleaned and ready for your guests.

Work Deadlines

Many people take time off during the holiday season to spend time with family or go on vacation. This can mean that there are deadlines that need to be met before everyone heads out of the office. This can add more stress to your schedule, especially since there are many consecutive holidays that can present their own deadlines. In addition, many people worry about the amount of work that has piled up while they were on vacation, which can make it stressful to head back into the office.

Packed Schedules

With the number of events going on during the holiday season, you will most likely find yourself with a packed schedule. Whether it's work commitments, holiday activities with your loved ones, or attending your child's winter recital, it can feel like there's always something that needs your attention. This can make it difficult for you to check in with your own needs and allow yourself to rest and unwind. And, this type of exertion over the span of many months can leave you feeling completely drained.

Travel Plans

Do you travel for the holidays? If so, it can be another stressor during the winter. It may feel wonderful to spend time with family that you don't get to see often, but the cost of travel and the stress of preparations can get in the way of you fully enjoying it. Whether you're taking a plane, train, or automobile, travel plans add one more thing to your list of potential obstacles during the holidays.

Feeling Lonely

The holiday season is also a time of year that can make people feel extremely lonely. It can remind people of loved ones they have lost, how they are separated from family, or how their social calendars aren't as jam-packed with social engagements for the season. It can also cause people to compare their lives, holidays, and social connections to those that they see people post about on social media or chat about in the office when the holiday season is over. This can be isolating for many and cause people to have negative thoughts about aspects of their life they wish they could change.

How Holidays Affect Mental Health

For quite a while psychologists have noticed that the holiday season affects the mental health of many. People experience changes in mood and health behaviors that can have a big impact on their overall well-being.

The Christmas Effect

According to a comprehensive review from the Journal of Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, many people experience a drop in mood during the holidays. This change in feelings and behavior is often referred to as the Christmas effect.

The review notes the findings of participants that were surveyed about their feelings during the Christmas holiday. Reports showed that the top emotions that people felt were loneliness, anxiety, and hopelessness. In addition, the surveys found that one of the main reasons why people experienced these emotions during the holiday season was because they believed that others were having more fun with family and friends than they were themselves.

In addition, the review notes findings that show a connection between the holiday season and alcohol use. One study referenced from Finland showed that the death rates due to alcohol abuse peaked around Christmas. Another study referenced from Denmark showed that over a span of 15 years more people died of alcohol poisoning around Christmas than on other holidays.

Winter Blues

woman with winter blues during holidays looking out window

During the holidays, people can experience what is known as the winter blues. It's the feeling of sadness, fatigue, and isolation that seems to arise during the winter months of the year. People usually experience mild symptoms of feeling depressed, losing interest in activities they once enjoyed, and sleep struggles. Symptoms usually begin in the fall and winter and subside with the arrival of spring.

More research needs to be done surrounding why exactly the winter blues occur. However, many psychologists contribute the change in behavior due to the qualities of the season. For example, the fall and winter months have shorter days, less sunlight, and colder weather. For one reason or another, these elements can keep people from participating in activities that they enjoy during the spring and summer months.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Some people experience more moderate or severe symptoms of the winter blues. In this case, a person may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression that can be clinically diagnosed. There are two types of SAD. Winter-pattern SAD is when symptoms appear in the fall and winter months and resolve in the spring and summer. Summer-pattern SAD with when symptoms appear in the summer and subside in the fall.

People with SAD may experience low energy levels, oversleeping, and weight gain often associated with cravings for carbohydrates and comfort food. In addition, they may experience more traditional symptoms of depression, such as social withdrawal, low mood, and feelings of hopelessness.

Seasonal affective disorder affects about .5-3% of people in the general population. However, for people with underlying mental health conditions, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, the rates raise between 10-25%.

Holiday Stress Levels

According to research from the Journal of the American Heart Association, the cardiac mortality rate is higher during the Christmas holiday period (December 25th to January 7th) than average rates throughout the year. The study notes that these findings remain consistent in the United States, New Zealand, and other countries across the world.

Elevated stress levels have been linked to high blood pressure, which puts people at a greater risk for heart attacks and strokes, as well as cardiovascular disease. For these reasons, many researchers believe that the effects of holiday stress may be linked to higher rates of mortality due to heart complication

Some people question if the increase in death rates by natural causes is due to the winter season affecting people's mood rather than the holidays themselves. However, the study found that death rates from natural causes, such as cardiovascular complications, were five percent higher than predicted if the holidays themselves were not a contributing factor.

Additional Effects of Stress

  • Changes in mood
  • Decreases cognition and learning abilities
  • Higher rates of developing anxiety and depression
  • Increased inflammation in the gastrointestinal system
  • Negatively impacts memory
  • Reduced immune system function

Holiday Mental Health Tips

The holiday season brings with it the good, the bad, and the festive. However, they also bring unique challenges that can throw people off balance and impact their well-being. Do you feel like you can tackle the holiday season with ease? Or do you feel like you might need a supportive hand to help get you through? Either way, there are some things you can do to help you cope with any stress or struggles that may come your way this season.

Allow Yourself to Say No

When loved ones are constantly hosting parties, dinners, and hangouts during the holiday season, it can put a lot on your plate. It can be difficult to accommodate all of the holiday fun on your already busy schedule. Sometimes, you might even sacrifice your own needs in order to make friends and family happy by attending their events. However, your health and well-being are important and not something you should have to sacrifice. Allow yourself to say no to invitations if you are feeling burnt out or just need some time to relax. Your loved ones will understand. If you're worried that you will spoil the fun for other members of your household, encourage them to go without you while you recharge.

Practice Self-Care

couple spending quality time with dogs during holidays

You do a lot to care for others during the holiday season and throughout the rest of the year. It's important to also care for yourself. Self-care is the practice of doing just that by tending to your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Research shows that self-care can reduce stress levels, increase your energy, and even decrease your risk of illness. It's one way to make a positive impact on your mental health and overall well-being. Self-care can be anything that brings you joy or that helps you relax. Some ways to practice self-care this holiday season are:

  • Buy your pet a costume that makes you laugh.
  • Decorate your house with lights.
  • Drink your favorite hot chocolate, cider, or coffee.
  • Light a peppermint or pumpkin-scented candle in your room.
  • Make your favorite holiday cookies.
  • Paint your nails a festive color.
  • Put on your favorite pair of holiday pajamas.
  • Snuggle in your favorite cozy blankets.
  • Watch your favorite holiday movies alone or with friends.

Schedule Yourself Some Alone Time

When the holidays begin, it can be difficult to make sure that you have time in your schedule to rest and unwind. One way to get ahead in this category is to plan it into your schedule. Maybe on weekends, you want one hour designated to your own well-being. Or, maybe you want to make sure that you take ten minutes after you get home to just lie down before you shift your attention to dinner or getting ready for a social event. When you plan this time into your schedule, you won't have to worry about whether you have enough time to get it all done, because you've already accounted for it. It's one way to make your alone time stress-free.

Savor the Good Moments

Savoring is the practice of allowing yourself to fully enjoy something. It allows a person to be fully present in the moment and remind themselves about the great qualities of whatever they are doing, seeing, or tasting. Research shows that the practice of savoring can boost a person's positive emotions and also increase their quality of life. To savor something, you just give it your full attention. Notice how it smells, tastes, and feels. Explore how it makes you feel and whatever kinds of beauty or enjoyment it holds. Some ways to practice savoring are:

  • Enjoy the smell of your fresh coffee in the morning.
  • Go for a walk and enjoy the sun on your skin.
  • Lay in the middle of your bed and feel the sheets on your hands.
  • Listen to your friends and family laugh and notice how it makes you feel to hear their joy.
  • Open a window and feel the fresh air all around you.
  • Put your phone away when spending time with loved ones.
  • Slowly eat your favorite food and appreciate the flavor.
  • Stop in front of a beautifully decorated house and allow yourself to view it for a while.
  • Take some time to feel and smell laundry fresh from the drier.
  • Wear your favorite outfit and notice how it makes you feel.

Do One Thing You Love Everyday

Another way to boost your mood this holiday season is to make sure that you are actually doing things that you like to do. Everybody has things that they need to do in a day, but what about the things that you want to be doing? Event planning is used in cognitive behavioral therapy to help people change their patterns of behavior when they are feeling low or stressed. Try to plan one activity a day into your schedule just for fun. You can invite family and friends to participate if you want to, do it alone, or a mix of the two. The events can be as small as having one of your favorite chocolates, or as big as going ice skating. Anything that sounds like fun to you will help shift your attention away from stress and negative thoughts.

Spread Some Kindness

family baking holiday cookies together

Research shows that being kind can actually boost a person's own happiness levels. One study from the Journal of Social Psychology found that the more acts of kindness a person does, the greater the boost in mood they experience. In addition, the study notes that a person receives wellness benefits whether they show some kindness to close friends, acquaintances, or even strangers. This means that if you don't feel the holiday cheer this year, that if you spread some to someone else, it might help ignite that festive spark.

Express Appreciation

Gratitude is the practice of expressing appreciation for the good aspects of your life. Research shows that gratitude can improve a person's overall well-being and reduce their stress levels. There are a lot of ways to practice gratitude, so find what feels right for you. Write a letter to a loved one and let them know how they support you. Make a bullet list of five things every day that you are grateful for. Visit a friend in person and thank them for helping you through the holiday season. Reflect on the positive aspects of your day and explore how they make you feel.

Add Some Movement to Your Day

The last thing you probably want to do during the holiday season or when you're feeling stressed is work out. However, some movement might actually be just what you need. Research shows that exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, lower stress levels, boost energy levels, and even improve sleep. You don't have to hit the gym or sign up for a marathon, any type of physical activity can help you get moving. Some ways to add some movement to your day are:

  • Dance to music.
  • Pick up trash in the park.
  • Practice simple stretches.
  • Take a walk around your neighborhood.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Try a yoga flow.
  • Walk to the store or a friend's house instead of driving.

Prioritize Your Rest

woman relaxing and reading in bed with a cup of tea during holidays

It can feel difficult to fit your 7-9 hours of sleep into your normal schedule, let alone during the holiday season, but your rest is really important. Sleep has been found to reduce stress, improve mood, and boost brain performance. It can even reduce your risk of developing health problems, such as heart disease and dementia when you get enough hours. It may be difficult to get enough hours of sleep each night when there's so much on your schedule. However, there are some things you can do to improve your sleep hygiene to help ensure that you are getting a good quality of rest. Some ways to prioritize your rest are:

  • Avoid using screens for at least 30 minutes before you want to go to sleep.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime environment.
  • Dim the lights or use soft lighting when you get ready for bed.
  • Make a nighttime routine and stick to it as much as possible.
  • Play soft music while you get ready for bed or as you drift off to sleep.

Be Gentle With Yourself

The holiday season can leave you stretched thin. You may have parties to plan, schedules to juggle, and presents to buy. Not to mention that you also have to worry about your own well-being. That's a lot for anyone to handle. If you find your to-do list piling up or that you are getting easily frustrated, remember to be gentle with yourself. You have a lot on your plate and you're trying your best, and that's all anyone could ask for. Give yourself the gift of kindness and remind yourself that the holiday season is about so much more than completing your schedule.

The holidays can be a lot for anyone to handle. There are social gatherings to attend and budgets to follow, which can put people through quite a bit of stress and strain as they try and celebrate the season. If the holidays make you feel low or drained, it's okay. Remind yourself that you don't have to do it all, especially if you feel like it's affecting your mental health. Listen to your own needs, and prioritize your health. The holidays are the season of giving, which means it's the perfect time to give yourself the attention and care you need.

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