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Holiday Blues vs Seasonal Affective Disorder

Feeling stressed and down during the holidays is not a disorder

The holidays can leave you feeling jumbled.

The holidays can leave you feeling jumbled.

Does this sound familiar: You were fine yesterday but you woke up this morning weighed down by the stress of all the things you normally have to do and all the additional holiday demands suddenly piled atop your To Do List. Like what? Like finding the perfect gifts for those special people in your life, gearing up to call the relatives you haven’t spoken to since last year, preparing for last minute combat shopping at the mall, figuring out what you are going to wear to the party that doesn’t make you look fat – you know, stuff like that. Special occasions that are normally spread out over an entire year - like birthdays and anniversaries – seem to be jammed into a few intense weeks. You are supposed to be happy. But instead you, in slow motion, fall into that deep, dark chasm called “depression”. Is this simply situational? Or maybe you are suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

The answer to these questions and more were answered in our pre-interview for an article by Katherine Schreiber that will appear later this month at We thought we’d share with you now some of this important information regarding the traditional holiday blues and the newer concept of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD):

1. What explains the holiday blues — and what exactly do we mean when we say "holiday blues"; what are the signs and symptoms / does "holiday blues" really just mean Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The holiday blues is what folks commonly call depression - and the stress that accompany it - during the holiday season. It can start prior to Thanksgiving and last after the New Year. As an aside, the term “the blues” dates back centuries and although disputed, it may be in reference to the “Blue Devil” that would overwhelm people with melancholia. Over the years, it was adopted by the medical community as a popular synonym for having low spirits - or depression. It’s different from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

2. How much does SAD play into the Holiday Blues?

People with from Seasonal Affective Disorder actually suffer from clinical depression that is a result of their personal biology – it’s the way their body works. The holiday blues is strictly situational; it comes from sadness or depression that is psychologically based. In other words – something happened in the past that – maybe at this time of year – that causes you to be depressed during the holidays. Typically SAD lasts for a few to several months while the holiday blues are time and situationally limited, happening just during the holiday season. And SAD brings with it myriad of physical and physiological changes caused by depression – like difficulty falling asleep or sleeping too much, an increase or decrease in appetite, low energy, difficulty remembering things or having a hard time handling situations, experiencing irritability and anger, and worse – a desire for isolation. Folks with the Holiday Blues don’t usually have these more profound symptoms.

3. How can we better prepare for the Holiday Blues — what are some strategies we can employ (behavioral or otherwise) to combat these low feelings and stave off the drop in mood that comes after the presents are unwrapped and we/re back at our desks, or doing our usual life tasks, trying to get back into an effective work mode.

The first thing is to embrace the joyous, compassionate, giving aspect of the season. This is in reference to the type of giving that comes from within you, not to the commercial gift giving aspect of the holidays. Be generous with your smiles and laughter; be compassionate and sensitive towards others, especially in difficult situations like long lines at the checkout counter. Sure, we may have had a hard day, but the other person may have had it worse! Also, make time to give others deserved compliments that can make their day.

Secondly, make life easier by planning ahead. If you feel the weight of too many obligations – like attending numerous events, or fighting crowds at the department store to get that special gift, lighten the load. As much as possible be selective about how you spend your time. Sure, there are some obligations that must be met – like going to visit relatives. But there are likely others that we can let go of. And instead of fighting crowds at the mall, take advantage of the internet to do your shopping and connecting with family and friends. Do stuff at off hours and try to arrange with your partner, kids or friends to share the load equitably.

An attitude tweak toward the positive - less hassled, more compassionate - will help lift your low mood. And when you find the Holiday Blues coming on, remember that these feelings are temporary; you’ll get through it. Think of the power of your smile to brighten your inner landscape as well as the social one around you.

4. What are the biggest misconceptions (in either the lay or the professional community) about holiday blues?

The biggest misconception may be that the holiday blues isn’t real – that it doesn’t exist. But it is and it does. Having the holiday blues doesn’t require medication – but if you think you have it, some gentle reflection may be in order. It may not qualify as clinically significant, but it is real and messes up our mood and thinking for weeks or more.

5. How does what we focus on during the holidays (or after) alter our mood—and what are some strategies to shift our focus so that we have a happier, healthier outlook once the holiday season is over?

What we focus on during the holidays is important but perhaps even more important is how we focus. It’s all about choice. We can choose to think and be positive or negative. For instance, if something bad happened in the past at this time of year, instead of going over and over what happened and wallowing in the sadness or loss, choose to remember the good experiences you’ve had during the holidays. If this seems too daunting then start small – notice the beauty of the lights and decorations, the smell of evergreens. Remember the taste of special seasonal foods and the warmth after coming in from the cold. When we are stuck in past negative experiences, we can poison your experiences today and your expectations for tomorrow. So choose to be positive! Go for the Zen Now moment of joy.

6. Does the advice you have for people combatting holiday blues differ based on their age, parental status, relationship status or gender? If so, how, and are there specific concerns related to certain populations that are important to highlight?

With the exception of children and young teenagers – who may have difficulty grasping the concept of the future and future-thinking, and the elderly who may be suffering from elder-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, the advice we have given here should work no matter a person’s age, gender, parental status or relationship status.

The population most prone to the Holiday Blues is the elderly. This makes sense because they have likely suffered the greatest amount of loss. They are of an age when people in their lives – spouse, family members and friends - are starting to pass on. Perhaps they moved from their house into an elder-care facility or with an adult child. They may have lost vitality, energy, their health. And if they suffer from an elder-related illness, they may not be able to grasp the provided advice. But, they deserve love, attention and respect. If you are visiting an elder this holiday season, steer the conversation toward their past positives; make their past part of your positive present.

For all others, it doesn’t cost anything to draw upon past positive experiences – and no matter how bleak life may seem, we all have good things that happened to us. It’s just a matter of choosing to remember them – the good old times or the good recent times. Also try overlaying the negative with the positive. Reducing stress by lessening your daily load and simplifying your agenda during the holidays goes a long way toward creating a brighter, more joyous holiday season. Finally, make time for yourself – for personal compassion.

For more in depth information about how your life is affected by the mental time zones that you live in, please check out our books: The Time Cure and The Time Paradox.

Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season!

Rose Sword and Phil Zimbardo

Visit our Psychology Today blogs to get a fuller appreciation of how to create a more balanced time perspective in your life!

Take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at to discover your personal time perspective.

See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective HYPERLINK "" \o "Psychology Today looks at Psychotherapy" Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing); for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit HYPERLINK "" \o "" \t "_blank" and HYPERLINK "" \o "" \t "_blank"

Visit our website, HYPERLINK "" \t "_blank", to view a free 20 minute video - The River of Time; you’ll learn self-soothing techniques as well as how to let go of past negatives, work towards a brighter future, and live in a more compassionate present.

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