For many, December is the busiest month of the year, with work deadlines, and family and social obligations. As a result, many of us have a tendency to neglect our basic needs by skipping exercise, eating unhealthy foods, and increasing our consumption of alcohol.

As the holiday season kicks into high gear, it’s especially important to set aside time to look after your health. The pressures of the holiday season tend to intensify feelings of sadness and anxiety.  The brain, like the rest of the body, is affected by factors such as diet, exercise, and smoking.

What Causes Holiday Depression?

Several factors contribute to the “holiday blues” – unrealistic expectations, financial pressures, and excessive commitments. You may face added personal demands, such as hosting holiday gatherings, cooking large meals, or housing out-of-town family members. All of these can raise your levels of stress and anxiety.

Some people feel anxious or depressed around the winter holidays as a result of seasonal depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons.  If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.”

The lack of attention to self-care also plays a part in the “holiday blues.” Work deadlines, holiday shopping and a full social calendar can result in missed workouts and less than healthy eating habits as we celebrate the season with special foods and drink.

Alcohol can also affect your mood, since it is a depressant that impairs your mental and physical function.  Alcohol is bad for your waistline, too.  Some alcoholic beverages can contain as many calories as cookies and pie — and just as much sugar!

Isolation is another leading factor in depression, especially during the holidays. People who live alone, have lost their loved ones, are uncoupled or just uncomfortable in social situations, tend to withdraw from gatherings and holiday events, increasing their feelings of sadness and loneliness. It is important for friends, loved ones, and neighbors to reach out to people who feel lonely and help them feel supported.

Tips to Beat the Holiday Blues

There are many coping methods and resources available to help you fight the blues so that you can enjoy the most wonderful time of the year.

  • Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by expecting a picture-perfect holiday. You cannot be everywhere, do everything, and please everyone. Be realistic. Prioritize what has to get done at home, at work, and for the family, and budget time accordingly. Everything else can wait.
  • Remember to take care of yourself. Avoid overeating, consuming too much alcohol, and try to keep a healthy physical routine as much as possible. Realistically, you will eat more than you normally do and may consume a few more drinks. Moderation is key. Be mindful of what – and how much – you are eating and drinking. You are less likely to feel full after several drinks than after several cookies, but the damage those drinks cause to your health is similar. (It goes without saying that drinking and driving do not mix; if you drink, be sure to have a designated driver or other method of transportation home.) With the cold weather, sometimes it’s hard to get out for that walk/jog/run. Try adding a few layers and get outside. Stroll the neighborhood and look at the lights and decorations, or fire up your VCR, DVD player or streaming services for some at-home workouts.
  • Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself. According to The Mayo Clinic, spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, can empower you to accomplish what you need to do. Find a quiet activity that reduces stress and enables you to clear your mind, slow your breathing, and restore your inner calm.
  • Be mindful of your guests. If you are hosting a holiday gathering, be aware that some of your guests might suffer from food allergies or chronic conditions like diabetes. Limit exposure to potentially harmful ingredients such as nuts and foods with high sugar content so that everyone gets to enjoy the festivities.


Where to Find Help

If you are unable to move past your feelings of sadness, despair, or begin to have thoughts about hurting yourself, seek help from a doctor or mental health professional immediately. You can be connected to a number of local resources by dialing 2-1-1 from any phone. Conemaugh Health Systems offers assistance through the Conemaugh Counseling Associates, which provides confidential outpatient evaluation and treatment. Croyle-Nielsen Therapeutic Associates offers counseling services to people in the community of all ages. If you are in the Somerset area, Somerset Hospital offers behavioral health services in clinics as well as the hospital, as does Windber’s Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center’s behavioral health services.

If your feelings are overwhelming and need immediate attention, you can also contact the Cambria County Crisis hotline by dialing (877) 268-9463 or, in Somerset County, by dialing (814) 443-4891.

We at the 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health wish everyone a very happy and healthy holiday season, and we hope to see you in 2018.