What are “Holiday Blues” and How to Deal With Them?
By Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D.

Holiday times may be difficult for some people.

Key points

  • Holiday blues are different from mental illness.
  • There are no systemic research studies on the subject of holiday blues.
  • There are some things you can still do to be able to enjoy holidays.

Christmas and New Year’s are usually associated with happy and joyful time with family and friends, but unfortunately this is not true for everyone. Some people are experiencing “holiday blues,” which are usually described as a feeling of depression and/or anxiety experienced during the holiday season. Some people may also be missing loved ones and/or having negative feelings from past memories of holidays or holidays from their youth. This time of the year may be especially difficult for seniors. The good news here is that the symptoms of holiday blues are not usually as severe as depression.

The depressive moods and anxiety around holidays were first described in 1955 by a New York psychiatrist, James P. Cattell. He used the term “holiday syndrome” to describe diffuse anxiety, feelings of helplessness, increased irritability, nostalgic or bitter ruminations about holiday experiences of youth, and a wish for magical resolutions of the problems. We can easily say that after 68 years, it is still a quite accurate description of holiday blues. In 1925, another psychiatrist, S.M. Sattin, wrote an article about the “holiday syndrome,” and in 1987 Marjorie Baier wrote an article describing holiday blues as a stress reaction.

Holiday blues are different from mental illness. There is no clinical diagnosis of “holiday blues,” but if the feelings of depression and/or anxiety persist long after the holidays and/or become more prominent, then you may want to see a mental health professional because holiday blues can lead to clinical depression and anxiety.

Barbara Koltuska-Haskin

Barbara Koltuska-Haskin

Despite a lot of articles in popular magazines about how to deal with the holiday stress and holiday blues, there are no systemic research studies on the subject of holiday blues. Therefore, it may be somewhat confusing to figure out how to differentiate it from clinical depression, anxiety disorder, mood disorder or seasonal affective disorder.

However, there is one interesting study not on the holiday blues exactly, but on the correlation between depression and sending out Christmas cards. This is a very current (2023), large population (2416 subjects), well done and interesting study, so I wanted to mention it here. It was done in the UK (Gallagher, S. et al. 2023). The researchers found out that subjects with depression were more likely to never send Christmas cards to family and friends. The researchers also concluded that, “this may help provide a way to identify loved ones, friends, or colleagues who may need help and support at Christmas.”

This is especially important because people already living with mental illness are often affected by the holiday blues. Reportedly, 60% of people with mental illness reported that holidays make daily conditions worse; therefore, they need help and support during the holiday season.

This brings us to the question: how to deal with holiday blues?

The most important thing is to make time for yourself. Take time to rest for yourself on a regular basis and do not forget to exercise and go for a walk.

Reach out for help and support. We do not have to do all the preparations by ourselves. Nothing in this world is perfect so there is no need to strive for perfection. Please remember that holidays are to be enjoyed.

Everything is best in moderation. Try not to overeat, especially on sweets, and please remember that alcohol is a depressant. Avoid drinking when you feel sad and stressed out.

If you feel that this year’s holidays may be especially difficult for any reasons (i.e. medical or family reasons, etc.”) or you have had holiday’s blues in the past, please reach out for help and contact a mental health professional. Nowadays, most of them offer telemedicine appointments so you do not have to travel to get the help you need. With professional help, you will be able to faster and more effectively overcome your holiday blues and enjoy the holidays.

Happy New Year to all my readers!


About the Author

Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico with over 30 years of clinical experience, and the author of How My Brain Works: A Guide to Understanding It Better and Keeping It Healthy. Her book has won 2 International Book Awards and 5 National Book Awards.

Dr. Barbara Koltuska-Haskin has received her first foreign translation. How My Brain Works was recently translated into Polish and published in Poland.


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