By Joe Borders, MFT
December 8, 2018
Do you ever get sad or depressed over the holidays? It turns out this is actually pretty common. Every year I see people get depressed over the months of November and December, and sometimes they disappear from counseling until the new year. When talking with people about their winter depression, there are a few themes that stand out.
For some, the abundance of holiday cheer can be difficult. Typically when people come to therapy they are confronting life difficulties that may be sad and hard to cope with. When you are feeling sad on the inside but everything outside of you is screaming happiness and cheer, it can be difficult to be congruent and honest with yourself and others about your feelings. This mismatch can result in what is known as cognitive dissonance.
The term cognitive dissonance refers to the state of being when a person has beliefs, attitudes, and/or behaviors that conflict with each other. An example might be someone who believes that harming animals is wrong, but who also enjoys fishing. Having such a conflict results in stress and anxiety.
During the holidays, those who feel bad on the inside but feel pressure to appear happy on the outside experience cognitive dissonance and are left feeling isolated or like something is wrong with them for feeling the way they do. This state of cognitive dissonance can then compound any difficulties a person might be facing at the time. The following video is a little technical, but a good explanation of cognitive dissonance.
The Happiness-Suicide Paradox
This also touches on something that is known as the happiness-suicide paradox. There have been several studies that have found that suicide rates tend to be higher in places that have higher overall levels of happiness. There are a couple of ideas about why this paradox exists and both of them can be related to the holidays.
Some people think that the happiness-suicide paradox exists because of cognitive dissonance. Essentially, it can be much harder to be unhappy when everyone around you seems to be happy. It effectively makes for a stronger contrast between a person’s inner suffering and the outer world they live in.
Think of yourself grieving the loss of a loved one and being in the midst of sadness. Now imagine others around you are sad and grieving as well. That’s one thing that can feel hard, but manageable. Now imagine you’re grieving and everyone else around you is having a party….totally different scenario that’s liable to make a person feel crazy and disconnected.
This is the idea behind the contrast theory explanation of the happiness-suicide paradox. I have talked with a number of people who have voiced feeling something similar to this when they are in a hard place and suffering during the holidays but are simultaneously surrounded by messages of happiness and cheer. Its one thing to be suffering and unhappy. It’s quite another to be in such a place while everyone around you seems joyful. This experience can leave a person feeling alone and helpless.
The No-One-Left-To-Blame Theory
Another explanation that has been suggested for the happiness-suicide paradox is referred to as the no-one-left-to-blame theory. This theory basically says that unhappy people tend to suffer less and be less unhappy when they have someone or something to blame for their unhappiness. If everyone else around you seems happy and like things are going well for them, then you lose some of that ability to blame others. In situations like this, the theory posits that people often feel like there is no one else to blame but themselves. I hear this kind of thinking all the time when it comes to the holidays. Something along the lines of “I’m really miserable….but everyone else is so happy….there must be something wrong with me….I just can’t do this thing everyone else is doing. I don’t fit in/people don’t understand me/what’s wrong with me?”.
Seasonal Effective Disorder
For some the holidays can be difficult because of memories of good times that are far gone, loved ones who are distant or no longer living, or negative life experiences compounded by cognitive dissonance. Another common issue that pops up in counseling during the holidays is what is known as seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is a fairly common disorder that makes people feel down, depressed, and apathetic during the winter months when days are shorter, darker, and generally wetter. It is believed that SAD is the result of lessened exposure to daylight which our bodies are dependent on for maintaining several chemical and hormonal systems. If you regularly experience depression during the fall/winter, you may want to talk with someone about SAD. There are several treatment options that might help you.
If you are experiencing depression during the winter months or any time of the year, it may be a good time to seek counseling. The negative emotions you are feeling are real. They are your own, and are your body’s way of telling you something isn’t right and needs to change. You don’t need to bottle it up for other people. Therapy can help.
About the Author
Joe Borders is a marriage and family therapist located in Roseville and Sacramento. He is primarily a sex positive gender therapist, but also specializes in working with couples, teens, addiction, and the LGBTQ community. Joe is also the owner and founder of SacWellness. You can find out more about him by visiting his sacwellness listing or by visiting his website: therapy and counseling in Roseville and Sacramento