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Those holiday blues

Gail Carlson, MPH, Ph.D., former Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension


True or false: Feeling let down, sad, tired or lacking in energy after the holidays is usually a sign that the holidays were disappointing, unpleasant or did not meet expectations?

Many people will answer “true” when asked this question. The holidays can be a time of joy, fun and excitement, but they can also be tiring, disappointing and tension packed. People sometimes feel blue or let down during or immediately after the holidays. It is easy to assume that these feelings are a sign that the holiday did not go well or that changes need to be made. That might be one explanation. However, that let-down feeling may be nothing more than your body's need to relax and recuperate after a very busy and hectic schedule.

During the holidays, there are many events, activities and people that act as stressors, causing stress overload. Some stressors are caused by negative events while others are the result of things that we look forward to. Stress can be caused by a single major event such as the disappointment that occurs when an unexpected ice storm keeps family members away from a planned gathering. Or it can result when little things pile up, even things we enjoy.

Negative stressors that can occur around the holidays are family arguments, disappointment over gifts, concern about spending too much money, loneliness, not being able to get home for the holidays, not enough sleep, too many people, etc.

But, events that we truly look forward to and enjoy can also be stressful — visiting with friends and families, shopping for and wrapping gifts, preparing food, decorating the house, too many parties and late evenings, overindulging, the added tension of having house guests, time constraints, the change of routine and pace, etc.

The body needs a chance to recover from stress. Without these rest periods, individuals are more susceptible to emotional tension and physical illness. There is also more risk of a breakdown in family communication.

It is important to remember that some people do become truly depressed during the holidays. Holidays are not a magical cure for people who are lonely and sad. The best gift you might be able to give someone who is depressed is the assurance that you don't expect him/her to automatically feel better because it is a holiday. Encourage involvement in holiday activities and events, but give that person some space and permission to leave when they feel they need to.

While some things are beyond our control, there are things we can do to keep holiday stress in check.

  • Keep expectations for the holiday season manageable. Don't try to make it “the best ever.”
  • Make a list and prioritize the most important activities. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Pace yourself. Organize your time.
  • Establish a budget and stick to it! Don't forget to add the cost of all those special holiday foods that you plan to prepare.
  • Enjoy holiday activities that are free such as driving around to look at decorations or going window shopping without buying anything.
  • Don't drink too much. Excessive drinking will only make you tired and depressed.
  • Spend time with people who are supportive and who care about you.
  • Recognize that life brings change. The holidays don't need to be just like they were in the “good old days” to be enjoyable. Develop some new family traditions. Celebrate the holidays in a way you have not done before.
  • Find time for yourself! Don't spend all your time providing activities for your family and friends.

Before jumping to the conclusion that the holiday blues are a sign that something did not go well, remember that this reaction may be nothing more than your body signaling that you need to relax and return to a pre-stress stage. If the holidays weren't what you expected, talk it over with your family and make some changes. On the other hand, if you enjoyed your holidays but still have that let-down feeling, try to relax and just accept your body and mind's need to recuperate after an exciting, fun-filled but stressful time.


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Last Updated 12/21/2012