Skip to main content

Mendo Lake Family Life

Ten Tips on Fighting Holiday Depression

Dec 21, 2009 12:00AM

It’s not just Elvis Presley who had a “Blue Christmas.” For millions of people in the United States, singing the blues during the holidays is much more than a sad, sad song: it’s a serious clinical condition. Helping dispel some of the myths around holiday depression, the Mental Health Association of San Francisco ( ) is offering a list of “ten tips” to prevent – and climb out of – the holiday blues.

“The holiday season for most people is a fun time of the year filled with parties, celebrations, and social gatherings with family and friends,” says MHA-SF Executive Director Belinda Lyons. “But for many people, it can be a time filled with sadness, loneliness and reflection on past failures and anxiety.”

What causes the holiday blues? According to Lyons, sadness is truly an individual experience. What makes one person feel sad may not affect another person. Common sources of holiday sadness include:

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Over-commercialization
  • Financial stress
  • Unemployment
  • Inability to be with one's family and friends

“Balancing the demands of shopping, family obligations, and house guests may contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed and increased tension,” Lyons continues. “People who do not view themselves as depressed may develop stress responses, such as headaches, excessive drinking, over eating and even insomnia  Others may experience post-holiday sadness after New Year's. This can result from built-up expectations and disappointments from the previous year, coupled with stress and fatigue.”

Lyons also acknowledges what many people intuitively feel: that reduced daylight can be a factor in wintertime sadness. “Most people find they eat and sleep slightly more in wintertime and dislike the dark mornings and short days,” Lyons explains.  “For some, however, symptoms are severe enough to disrupt their lives and cause considerable distress. These people are suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Research studies have that found phototherapy is effective in treating people that suffer from SAD. Phototherapy is a treatment involving a few hours of exposure to intense light. This extra exposure to light while awake seems to correct symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.”

To help combat holiday depression and fight the effects of “SAD”, the Mental Health Association of San Francisco offers 10 Tips to prevent holiday stress and depression:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's okay to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.
  2. Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
  3. Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like ones remembered fondly from years past. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails , video or using social media to get together virtually.
  4. Set aside differences. This time of year can be an opportunity to working on accepting not only ourselves, but also family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. Consider setting aside grievances until another time. Try to be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they may be feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression too.
  5. Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange. There are also a number of wonderful free activities taking place in San Francisco during the holiday season
  6. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities.
  7. Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity.
  8. Keep up healthy habits. Overindulgence over the holidays can add to stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.
  9. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music.  Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, breathe.
  10. Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

“When stress is at its peak, it's hard to stop and regroup,” Lyons says. “We hope these ten tips will help people prevent stress and depression, especially if the holidays have taken an emotional toll in the past.”

For help finding treatment, support groups and other mental health-related services in San Francisco, call the Mental Health Association of San Francisco (MHA-SF) at (415) 421-292. If you or someone you know is in crisis now, seek help immediately. Call San Francisco Suicide Prevention’s 24 hour crisis hotline at (415) 781-0500 or dial 911 for immediate assistance.

About the Mental Health Association of San Francisco

With more than 60 years of service, the Mental Health Association of San Francisco (MHA-SF) is dedicated to improving the mental health of residents in the diverse communities of San Francisco through education, advocacy, research, and service.  In all its programs, MHA-SF works together with people and families challenged by mental illness and with the agencies that serve them to promote prevention, access to services, leadership, and independence.

Central to MHA-SF’s mission throughout its history, is the belief that meaningful change can only be achieved with active participation by those challenged by mental illness and that mental health consumers must be empowered to pursue their own goals. Recognizing that tens of thousands of San Franciscans live near or below the poverty level and that mental illness disproportionately affects people of lower income, especially those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. MHA-SF programs particularly address the needs of the underserved, and those who seek mental health services only to be barred from access.

The organization focuses on high-impact systems change and leadership development, influencing the availability and disbursement of millions of government dollars which touch the lives of thousands.

The Mental Health Association of San Francisco is an affiliate of the Mental Health Association in California and the National Mental Health Association.  For more information, please call (415) 421-2926 or go online to