How to Deal with a Low Mood During the Holidays

The emotional stress of preparing for family gatherings, budgeting holiday shopping and the ongoing changes to our day-to-day schedule can wreak havoc on our emotional stability[1]. You may be left feeling low, overwhelmed, and frustrated during the holiday season. Though it is recommended to seek medical attention if low mood interferes with social functions, work or school, below are some tools that you can use to manage a low-mood and help maintain balance through the holidays. 

Keep a regular exercise routine
Countless studies have demonstrated a connection between exercise and reduction in depression[2]. By making exercise a regular part of your routine you can help give your mind a buffer against common holiday triggers such as stress and anxiety[3]. What’s important to keep in mind is that any type, frequency or intensity of exercise is beneficial[4]. Try scheduling a specific time each day to go on a walk, practice yoga or even tackle household chores to keep your body active. 

Maintain good sleep hygiene
Getting an adequate amount of sleep can be challenging when you’re traveling or visiting with family, so the quality of your sleep becomes key. By practicing good sleep hygiene you can help reduce depressive symptoms and improve your quality of sleep[5]. If you suffer from day-time fatigue or insomnia during this time of year, these sleep hygiene practices can help you maintain a healthy sleep cycle: 
  • Avoid evening caffeine, alcohol and nicotine use[6]
  • Wear an eye mask and/or ear plugs to reduce light and noise disturbances throughout the night[7]
  • Wake up and go to bed around the same time each day[8]. If you’re having a hard time falling asleep at your scheduled time, try listening to a guided meditation designed to promote relaxation or sleep 
  • Abstain from day-time napping[9]
  • Do not engage in arousing activities within an hour of bedtime[10], such as checking emails, using social media, or watching television.
Implementing these changes will improve your quality of sleep, so you’ll feel more rested and ready to take on your busy holiday schedule. 

Limit Alcohol consumption
Studies have found an association between heavy drinking and symptoms of depression and anxiety[11], so moderating alcohol consumption may help prevent a low mood from spiraling into depression. If alcohol helps you relax at family gatherings or social functions, try replacing it with a natural supplement such as magnesium oxide or a tonic made with raw cacao powder. Magnesium may help alleviate symptoms of depression[12] and is considered a well-tolerated treatment for both sleep disturbances and anxiety[13]. I like to mix raw cacao, stevia and warm almond milk to make a calming hot chocolate beverage before bed.

Engage in activities that are fun and relaxing
During the holiday season, we may find ourselves being forced to spend time with people we don’t particularly want to interact with, we tend to have less privacy than usual and we may have to eat food we don’t particularly enjoy eating. These types of activities are commonly associated with low moods, and can invite feelings of depression, worry and stress[14]. When a low-mood starts to settle in, it’s important to break the negative-emotion cycle and engage in rewarding activities[15]. Some rewarding activities may include walking the dog, being with friends or loved ones, having peace and quiet, complimenting someone, going for a car ride, or reading a good book. The goal here is to engage in behaviors that produce positive reinforcement of rewarding activities[16]. Working through a low-mood and engaging in these positive activities can give you a sense of accomplishment and produce an almost immediate improvement in mood[17]. 

Each of these tools is beneficial on its own, but practicing these approaches together can have a positive, cumulative effect on both your physical and mental health. Exercising and limiting alcohol consumption can help improve sleep quality, which may give you more energy to engage in rewarding behaviors throughout the day. By tracking your mood and activities in emoods, you can narrow down which approach works best for you and create a customized plan to manage low-mood during the holidays.

Colleen Rideout is a researcher in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, ranked as the top psychology program in Canada. Colleen's passion lies in breaking down the latest in psychology research into activities, tools, and processes that real people can apply to their everyday lives, so they can live better.  

  1. the medical minute: Many different factors can trigger holiday depression. (2014). States News Service
  2. Daley, A. (2008). Exercise and depression: A review of reviews. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 15(2), 140-147. doi:10.1007/s10880-008-9105-z
  3. Stower, H. (2014). Linking exercise and depression. Nature Medicine, 20(11), 1241-1241. doi:10.1038/nm.3753
  4. Ibid. 2
  5. Turgay, G., & Polat, Ü. (2019). sp831the effect of sleep hygiene training and progressive relaxation exercise on sleep, quality of life and depression in hemodialysis patients. Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation, 34(Supplement_1) doi:10.1093/ndt/gfz103.SP831
  6. Jansson-Fröjmark, M., Evander, J., Alfonsson, S., Medicinska fakulteten, Medicinska och farmaceutiska vetenskapsområdet, Institutionen för kvinnors och barns hälsa, . . . Uppsala universitet. (2019). Are sleep hygiene practices related to the incidence, persistence and remission of insomnia?: Findings from a prospective community study. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 42(1), 128.
  7. Ibid. 6
  8. Ibid. 6,7.
  9. Gellis, L. A., & Lichstein, K. L. (2008;2009;). Sleep hygiene practices of good and poor sleepers in the united states: An internet-based study. Behavior Therapy, 40(1), 1-9. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2008.02.001
  10. Ibid. 9
  11. Feldstein Ewing, S. W., Filbey, F. M., Chandler, L. D., & Hutchison, K. E. (2010). Exploring the relationship between depressive and anxiety symptoms and neuronal response to alcohol cues. Alcoholism Clinical and Experimental Research, 34(3), 396-403. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2009.01104.x
  12. Ibid. 9, 10
  13. Carson, C. A. (2017). Magnesium oxide supplements for the treatment of post-chemotherapy sleep disturbance. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 35(5_suppl), 175-175. doi:10.1200/JCO.2017.35.5_suppl.175
  14. Petersen, T. J. (2016). The Massachusetts General Hospital handbook of cognitive behavioral therapy. New York: Humana Press.
  15. Ibid. 14
  16. Ibid. 14, 15.
  17. Ibid. 14, 15, 16.

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