Thanksgiving Blues: Why They Happen and How to Cope

You’re not alone if you dread or feel anxious about this upcoming holiday season. Despite the societal messages about holiday cheer and family connection, this can undoubtedly be a challenging time.

In addition, research from the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) shows that 64% of people with a mental illness like depression or anxiety find that the holidays worsen their symptoms. So if you’re already feeling the impact of Thanksgiving Blues, here’s what you need to know.


What are the Main Symptoms of Thanksgiving Blues?

It’s no secret that many people experience stress during the holidays. It’s an intense time of year, there’s immense pressure to “make the most of it,” and it’s hard when you don’t feel the level of happiness you think you’re supposed to feel.

That said, holiday depression can be a real issue that significantly impacts your quality of life. Here are some common symptoms to consider:

  • Increased sadness
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Tension with family members
  • Appetite changes (undereating or overeating)
  • Mood swings
  • Experiencing physical issues like stomachaches or migraines
  • Apathy (feeling disinterested in normal relationships or hobbies)
  • Increased desire to escape through drugs or alcohol

Keep in mind that these symptoms exist on a spectrum. But stress and symptoms from other mental health disorders often exacerbate them.


What Causes the Holiday Blues?

Like clinical depression, there isn’t a specific cause for the holiday blues. Instead, a combination of variables likely increases the chance of you experiencing distress this time of year.

Here are some key risk factors:

Unrealistic expectations: We all know that the media paints a picture-perfect scene of what the holidays “should” look like. A close-knit family. Beautiful presents. Gorgeous decorations and home-cooked meals. Even if you know some of those depictions are exaggerated or fake, they can still impact how you perceive your holiday experience.

Dysfunctional family dynamics: We often associate the holiday season with family and love. But if your family feels toxic to you, you may feel lonely during this time. Sometimes, it’s especially painful to realize that you won’t have that loving connection with your relatives.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): SAD impacts about 5% of the U.S population, and it tends to be most common during the winter months. If you experience seasonal depression, this time of year may feel especially difficult.

Emphasis on overindulgence: If you struggle with alcohol use, disordered eating, or compulsive spending, this time of year can be tough. Other people might not understand your recovery needs. At the same time, you might find yourself justifying problematic patterns because other people are seemingly engaging in the same actions.

Financial stress: Finances are tight and represent a significant source of stress for many people right now. But there’s still this pervasive message that you’re supposed to buy extravagant presents and spend excessive money during this time of year. This pressure can create a sense of dread and shame.

Grief: Losing a loved one can make the holiday season difficult. You may have mixed feelings during this time of year, especially if you enjoyed spending Thanksgiving or the holidays with that person.


How to Cope If You’re Concerned About a Depressing Thanksgiving

As we get closer to the holidays, it’s important to focus on creating a self-care plan. Committing to looking after yourself can help you find peace and break frustrating patterns this time of year.

Here are some tips if you’re worried about having a depressing Thanksgiving or holiday season:

Thanksgiving Blues Why They Happen and How

Make Your Own Traditions

You don’t have to put on a brave face and force yourself to do things that feel inauthentic or harmful to your mental health. That may mean avoiding certain rituals on Thanksgiving altogether. It may also mean setting boundaries and saying no to events that don’t align with your values. Remember that you don’t need to be spending time with people who make you feel worse about yourself.


Practice Ongoing Self-Care

Commit to looking after your emotional health before, during, and after the Thanksgiving holiday. Your self-care plan should include concrete techniques that help you feel confident, recharged, and connected.


Practice More Self-Compassion

The holidays can be difficult, but berating yourself for having a hard time makes these winter months feel more arduous. Implementing self-compassion can make a valuable difference. For example, you might feel guilty for eating certain foods on Thanksgiving. But what if you could embrace a more balanced approach? What if you could eliminate the concept of good or bad foods and accept how your body looks exactly as it is?


Ground Yourself With Routine

As much as possible, try to stick to a predictable schedule during the holidays. Having an idea of what’s next can help you feel more ‘in control’ during this time.

Thanksgiving Blues Why They Happen

Plan Exit Strategies in Advance

If you know certain relatives trigger frustration or stress, prepare for these patterns in advance. An effective exit strategy entails knowing how and when you will leave a specific, stressful situation. Sometimes it means texting a friend when you feel overwhelmed. Other times, it means creating a special code word with your partner with the knowledge that if you use that word, it means you two will leave the event.


Recognize Your Mental Health Triggers

As mentioned, issues like depression and anxiety may feel worse this time of year. This isn’t your fault. However, it can be helpful to recognize which situations or people exacerbate stress. By recognizing these triggers, you can develop an action plan for either avoiding or coping with them.


Stay Connected

You’re not alone in how you feel. Connect with friends, family, and other loved ones who can validate your experiences. Sometimes, it just takes one person who “gets you” to feel better about a situation.


How Professional Help Can Help This Holiday Season

The holidays can be tough, even if you’re looking forward to them. Sometimes, seasonal depression really is just limited to a few months. But your symptoms may be a sign of more serious mental illness. Regardless, if you’re struggling with your mood and feelings right now, you deserve support.

If your struggles are impacting your emotional well-being, therapy can make a profound difference. Contact me today to get started!



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