'Tis the season to be jolly, but depression, sadness and anger remain prominent

While the holidays are a time of joy and sharing moments with loved ones, for many Americans the emotional stress of the season leads instead to holiday distress.

The reasons contributing to sadness, depression and anger this time of year are nuanced and many, said April Thames, PhD, professor of Psychiatry and clinical neuropsychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and the UCLA Brain Research Institute.

“With the pandemic over the past several years, and now inflation, many people are extremely stressed,” she said.

And angry, she adds. “It has a lot to do with all that has happened during last few years. Mental health has worsened during the pandemic, and a lot people have lost their jobs.”

Pandemic amplifies stress and anger during holidays

Even before COVID-19, many people struggled with anger and depression during the holidays, Dr. Thames said. But the pandemic has magnified everything.

“We’re in the aftermath of what has been a tidal wave,” Dr. Thames said. “Businesses shut down. People have been isolated from their families. People got sick, and many lost loved ones.”

Such stressors are capable of producing feelings of sadness, anger and depression.

Holidays highlight heart-rending realities

For many, it’s a matter of cognitive dissonance — the emotional discomfort one feels when current realities don’t mesh with our ideal of how things should be.

If the Christmas ideal is of a holiday during which we happily celebrate with family and friends but illness and/or financial setbacks make that difficult, if not impossible, then the ground is laid for depression to set in.

“If you think, ‘This is the time of year when I should feel happy but I’m not,’ that can make you feel more distressed,” Dr. Thames said.

“When there is incongruence between how we want to present ourselves to others and our true selves, that results in psychological conflict,” she said.

Alleviating stress and anger

Addressing and overcoming mental and emotional challenges during the holidays is easier said than done, but Dr. Thames offers some tips to help ease the way.

“Normalizing the idea that it’s OK to feel sad during the holidays can help people in a big way, especially if they know they are not alone,” she said. “Some people find relief in knowing that this isn’t always a happy time of year for everybody.”

It also helps to seek assistance.

“Getting support from other people who are going through the same thing can help to address what’s weighing you down,” said Dr. Thames. “Also, joining a support group or seeking caregivers for those who are alone during the holidays can help relieve mental stress.”

Find out more about mental health services at UCLA Health.