The Myth of the Holiday Blues

For many people, the holiday season inspires feelings of joy, gratitude and charity. For others, the added duties of shopping, cooking, wrapping and hosting lead to feelings of stress, anxiety and loneliness. (In, all likelihood, most people experience both happiness and increased stress levels in November and December.)

And so, it is not surprising that in December, the media is peppered with stories about how to beat the “holiday blues” – that depressed feeling that comes from experiencing sadness or loneliness during a time when others seem to be so joyous. These news stories often refer to an increase in suicide rates around the holidays.

But data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control show suicide rates are typically the lowest in December; they actually peak in spring and summer. Yet as many as two-thirds of news stories about the “holiday blues” make this faulty connection to an increase in the suicide rate, according to an analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Other than spreading false information, these inaccurate stories can lead to adverse consequences. For people who are mentally ill or vulnerable, the evidence shows that reading news about suicide can encourage them to committee suicide.

In fact, the Annenberg Center has developed guidelines about the healthiest ways to write about suicide in the news. They include avoiding sensational headlines and sensational words such as “epidemic” and “sky-rocketing.”

So, is there any truth to the idea about the holiday blues?

While there are no systematic reviews about the increase of mental health problems around the holidays, some survey data suggest people feel more stress, anxiety and depression in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

One survey by the American Psychological Association uncovered some interesting data about the holiday blues:

  • While the majority of people in the survey reported feelings of happiness, love, and high spirits over the holidays, those emotions were often accompanied by feelings of fatigue, stress, irritability, bloating, and sadness.
  • Thirty-eight percent of people surveyed said their stress level increased during the holiday season. Participants listed the top stressors: lack of time, lack of money, commercialism, the pressures of gift-giving, and family gatherings.
  • Surprisingly, 56 percent of respondents reported they experienced the most amount of stress at work. Only 29 percent experienced greater amounts of stress at home.

Another survey this year by Bankrate.com found that more than 60 percent of people feel the pressure to overspend on presents, travel, social outings or charitable donations during the holiday season.

It’s important to note there are no current academic studies or systematic reviews about holiday stress; but the surveys do identify trends that warrant further investigation.

The take home message: Yes, although the holidays can be stressful, the evidence demonstrates that they don’t cause the type of serious depression that leads to suicide.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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