Ho, Ho, Ho-Hum: Holidays Not Always Filled With Joy

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 26, 1999 (Atlanta) -- If blue is washing out the greens, reds, and golds this holiday season, take heart. This is, after all, a big one. As if the holidays aren't enough for some people, they now have the whole millennium to contemplate, too. The holidays, instead of bringing up feelings of a 'wonderful life,' can leave many people feeling sad or angry, and longing for the uneventfulness of January.

The holiday blues can have many reasons. The most serious one is a condition known as seasonal affective disorder, which is a clinical depression where the person feels 'down' all the time, has low energy, and experiences problems with eating and sleeping. Although the cause of the condition isn't known for certain, some experts believe it's a biological condition brought about by the lack of light in the winter months.

The holiday blues are much more a case of the 'blahs' -- Jingle Bells as sung by B.B. King. One feels overwhelmed by a sense of dread, even anger. When a person is told he or she should be feeling festive, giving, serene, and joyful, conflicting emotions are bound to arise when in fact the person feels quite the opposite.

Part of the reason may be the season -- the winter season, not the holiday season. Psychologist Morton G. Harmatz, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst did a study that followed over 600 adults for 15 months. They found a pattern of a seasonal change in mood. The feelings were well below clinical depression levels, and people with seasonal affective disorder were not included in the study.

Harmatz tells WebMD that what was found "is a kind of normative change in mood with season, depression that goes from feeling worse in winter to the best in summer. Other moods we looked at were anger and irritability, hostility, and those, too, tend to be highest in the winter, so I guess we could say negative moods are at their most extreme in the winter."

Diet, activity, and light all show seasonal variations, so they could be contributing factors, the researchers write, but additional study is needed to narrow down the causes. Harmatz made it clear these were all "normal folk." He tells WebMD, "The importance of our study ... is not that it establishes anything about pathology. It simply says if we take out those seasonal affective disorder people, the ones who we think are sort of biologically wired to mood, it turns out we all are [that way]; it's just not as noticeable because it's not extreme, it's not clinically important."

None of this is intended to mean there might not be some real issues brought on by the holidays. Information from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., puts the problems into three categories: psychological or emotional; physical; and financial.

For those that didn't grow up on Walton's Mountain, childhood was not always a fairy tale. The holidays can bring a lot of family around, and that can cause stress. Unresolved feelings may try again, unsuccessfully, to resolve themselves. Bad memories may resurface, or feelings that have been simmering all year may flare up around the holidays. Perhaps a loved one died around the holidays last year. Just fill in the blank: the emotional reasons can be numerous.

"A lot of times, people think that somewhere out there, there's an ideal family. I haven't met one yet," clinical psychologist Patricia Gore tells WebMD. "The reality of what has happened in the past is not in any way close to what the ideal is, so people start thinking, they get sad because they think about what's missing. Or maybe somebody who isn't here this year who was there last year, maybe somebody's died, or -- in the case of most of the people I work with -- it's sad memories of things that happened at holiday times," she says.

Physically, too, the holidays may be the final straw in a the busy-career, two-kids-and-a-spouse, multiple-responsibility, workaday life. And then, financially, some people may not be able to afford the holiday they'd like, or feel they're supposed to have.

Gore says a little perspective can go a long way. "Something I try to point out to people, it's only one day, it's only one day, it's like any other day, and it will come and it will go and that's it," she tells WebMD.

The Mayo Clinic has some suggestions to help ease the strain. Acknowledge feelings, be realistic, set differences aside, if possible, and resolve family issues after the holidays. If necessary, seek out help or support if the issues are overwhelming. Budget money and time. Retain healthy habits; don't use the holidays as a time just to eat, drink, and be substance-induced merry. Meanwhile, stay in the spirit.

"In fact, it really is [A Wonderful Life]," Gore tells WebMD. "So what I try to do is get people to look at what they do have. Maybe it's not the ideal, maybe it's not textbook, maybe it's not the picture-perfect Christmas that you'd like to think about, but there are a lot of positive and good things in their life, and I try to get them to focus on that. ... Of course, the best way to get over the holiday blues is to do something nice for someone else."

Vital Information:

  • The holiday season can make many people feel sad and lonely, which can be caused by lifestyle changes or a clinical depression called seasonal affective disorder.
  • Even among nondepressed people, the winter months are associated with the most negative moods, researchers say.
  • Some advice to help ease the stress of the holidays: acknowledge your feelings, have realistic expectations, budget your money and time, and retain healthy habits.