The holiday blues: tips for when time off doesn’t feel very relaxing

Holiday blues may be a counterintuitive phenomenon, but they are also a common one. When given the time to finally relax and enjoy the freedom to do whatever takes our fancy, the reality is often different.

Whether it is a sense of exhaustion inertia from a year of work, loneliness, the loss of a healthy routine or a sudden spotlight on our lack of life balance or connection in our relationships, holidays can highlight feelings that don’t feel good.

Holidays can highlight disconnect in other areas of our lives.Credit:Getty

Dr Tim Sharp, a clinical psychologist and founder of Sydney's Happiness Institute, says the cause of holiday blues will differ for different people.

“That being said, it is quite common, more common than many think, and there are some common contributing factors,” he says.

While the standard perception is that work is stressful and holidays are all about play, Sharp points out that this overlooks the “many benefits” that can come from work.

“Work provides structure and meaning, social interaction and mental stimulation, challenges and achievement,” he explains. “For many, therefore, the absence of these during holiday periods can be like a loss; and that loss can contribute to feelings of sadness or even depression.”

While the exact statistics on holiday blues are unclear, one survey by the American Psychological Association found that 38 per cent of respondents said their stress levels increased over the holidays. A separate survey by Healthline found 62 per cent felt elevated stress levels.

The surveys also found, although people had positive feelings about holidays, they reported feeling exhausted, irritable, bloated and sad.

Addressing these feelings means first determining which aspects of holiday time affect you.

“One can either find ways to accept and enjoy the absence of these variables or replace them in some positive way,” Sharp advises.

“It might be worthwhile, for some, to create an alternative ‘holiday structure’ so days are meaningful and satisfying; to make an effort to keep up healthy activities such as exercise or meditation practise, to ensure that social activities are planned and even to set some goals or challenges so as to enjoy some sense of accomplishment during breaks from work.”

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette last month, Natalie Dattilo, director of psychology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, suggested using the discomfort as impetus to reevaluate your priorities: “If you find that this is a time of year that you struggle, I recommend that you take a minute to sit down and make a list of the things about this time of year that are important to you and that you value, and then make sure the things that you are doing are in line with those things that are on that list."

Sharp stresses that holiday blues are different from depression and tend to pass fairly quickly. If the feelings do not subside, or you find it impossible to slow down, there might be something else going on.

“If someone finds they really struggle with not being busy all the time then working on why this is and finding ways to be more comfortable in quiet would be well worth exploring.”

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