Winter blues: how the holidays impact mental health

With the holiday season just a few weeks away, many people will be at risk of experiencing a decline in their mental health or have what’s often called “winter blues,” or seasonal depression. 

A 2021 survey from NAMI showed that 3 in 5 Americans feel their mental health is negatively impacted by the holidays. 

A lack of sunlight, less time outdoors and less social interaction through the winter months are possible reasons for lowered mood, according to Montina Myers-Galloway, a licensed therapist who owns a private practice in Charlotte specializing in therapy for Black women.

“Once the weather starts to change, people are in the house,” Myers-Galloway said. “They are interacting with people much less. They get less sunlight. That all impacts our mood.” 

Holidays can also trigger poor mental health due to the stress and pressure they cause, Dr. Russell Hancock, a psychotherapist at Atrium Health, said. 

“Some parts of the winter blues are related to the expectations placed on people [during] the holidays,” Dr. Hancock said. 

For many people, the holidays mean more interaction with family, and unhealthy family dynamics can also harm mental health.

Lastly, grief can make the holidays difficult for many people who have experienced loss. 

“Any type of holiday, anniversary, birthday, if you’ve lost someone, those days become even more difficult,” Myers-Galloway said. “It could trigger loneliness, it could trigger anger and fear of missing out.” 

Individuals who have a pre-existing mental health disorder, who have family members with mental health problems, or who live in stressful environments may be at a higher risk of developing poor mental health this time of year, Myers-Galloway said.

Symptoms to watch for 

Social withdrawal, weight gain or loss, trouble getting out of bed and lowered mood are all symptoms of the winter blues, according to both Myers-Galloway and Dr. Hancock. 

Due to cultural norms and nuances in the Black community, signs of depression may look different in Black people.

Symptoms of poor mental health in Black women can often present as irritability or intense self-loathing, Myers-Galloway said. 

“It’s not as culturally accepted for [Black women] to slow down …so that impacts how depression might be displayed,” Myers-Galloway said. 

For Black men, depression can look like bouts of intense anger or rage, she said.

Myers-Galloway encourages anyone showing symptoms for longer than two weeks to seek professional help. 

Mental wellness

Yoga, meditation, journaling and therapy are all ways to care for your mental health, Myers-Galloway said. 

She also encourages people to “lean into vulnerability and ask for what they need during the holidays.”

Both Dr. Hancock and Myers-Galloway said understanding one’s triggers is an essential step to addressing poor mental health. 

Dr. Hancock encourages people to acknowledge the stress associated with the holidays and to be realistic with their expectations to relieve unnecessary anxiety.  

“The goal is to be with family [and] friends,” Dr. Hancock said. “The goal does not have to be to exhaust oneself.” 

Myers-Galloway suggests removing extra stressors during the holiday season, such as ordering takeout instead of cooking or not hosting the holiday.

“Eliminate what’s not helpful,” Myers-Galloway said. “If it’s not helpful for you to be around certain people, make adjustments. If it’s not helpful for you to go to certain places, make adjustments. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding those triggers, people, places and things that exacerbate mental health issues.” 

For those wanting support with mental health, call SAMHSA’s national helpline, 1-800-662-4357.

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