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The not-so-merry-and-bright side of the holiday season: The holiday blues

As the holiday season approaches, it’s important to know that it’s alright if you’re not feeling the joy that you’re “supposed to”. Though the holidays are meant to be a time of joy, the pressures and emotions that come with trying to fulfill that expectation can sometimes have the opposite effect. Add to that the isolation of being an expat, parenting responsibilities, workplace demands, social obligations… This can quickly become a formula for the worst time of the year. Read on to see what you can do to help relieve those holiday blues.

By Rosaleen March

The holidays can be a minefield for sadness and stress

Though its not clinical depression, having temporary depression or sadness during the winter season is a real phenomenon. It is helpful to be aware of several aspects of the holiday season that can trigger a case of the holiday blues:

  • Existing emotional difficulty(ies) worsen
  • Physical distance from family and friends
  • Holidays = high stress and deadlines
  • Forced interactions
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Existing emotional difficulty(ies) worsen

These can include family conflict, loss, break-ups, or divorce. Seeing others enjoy the season while you’re going through a hard time can make you feel even lonelier. It can be a painful reminder of what is “lacking” in our own lives, or of happier times gone by. The holidays are also when we remember the loved ones we’ve lost, especially those who have made the holidays special for us.

Physical distance from family and friends

As an expat, the distance from extended family and friends can be difficult at any time of year, but often more so during the holidays, if expenses or time prevents traveling. With children, there is the guilt of not providing them quality time with grandparents or other family.

Holidays = high stress and deadlines

If you tend to be a perfectionist, you might have unrealistic expectations about doing everything and planning the perfect holiday. These expectations include preparing exquisite meals and finding the perfect presents for everyone in your life. Not to mention the stress of the extra expenses for gifts, food, entertaining, and decorations, which can threaten an already strained family budget.

Forced interactions

Forced interactions in family gatherings and holiday parties, particularly in a charged political season, can be a source of stress.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

SAD is a form of depression caused by less daylight in the winter months. The fact that the Netherlands gets a daily average of 1.5-3 hours of sunlight in the winter months doesn’t help matters. As it gets colder, we tend to be less active and spend more time indoors. These can lead to less energy, moodiness, weight gain, and depression.

Tips for dealing with the holiday blues

First and foremost, do not isolate yourself. If you find yourself growing depressed, open up to someone you trust, or just make it a point to meet up (in person if possible) with people you can relax with. Feeling a personal connection will lift your mood. If you’re still struggling, find a therapist (your doctor is a good place to start, as s/he can refer you to someone). (See also the resource list at the end of this post).

Deal with worsened emotional difficulties

Embrace your feelings. If you are going through the pain of loss of a loved one, embrace your sadness. See this as a time for remembrance. Find a way to celebrate your loved one’s memory, perhaps with a tradition that they would have enjoyed.

Put some focus on others. Take the focus off yourself and put it on others who could use your help, such as volunteering, or simply inviting over someone else in a difficult time. This might help you keep things in perspective and take attention away from your difficulties.

Shorten the distance to your loved ones

Use technology. If you are away from your loved ones, take full advantage of communication technology. Make appointments to do video calls with your loved ones during the holidays. Remember, they probably miss you as much as you do them!

Reduce the impact of holiday stress and deadlines

Self care! Take care of your health, because good physical health is beneficial for your mental health. Keep up your healthy habits and take the time to do healthful things that you enjoy. If you overindulge in food and alcohol, don’t make a huge deal out of it. Find ways to help you make better decisions in the future and move on

Gift exchanges. To cut down on costs and stress, consider a gift exchange much like SinterklaasSet a cost limit and focus on activities to do together like walking or board games. You might even try giving homemade and personalized creative items like food. 

Strategize your social interactions

Develop strategies for surviving forced interactions. If you know there could possibly be a conflict during a family gathering or other social situation, try to avoid politics or other difficult topics. If they do come up, prepare neutral responses like, “I can see how you would feel that way” and find an out. Talk to someone you trust/feel comfortable with, who will be with you, about possible cues to help each other if one of you needs to be rescued from an awkward social situation.

Confirm if you have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Visit your doctor. If you suspect you may have SAD, see your doctor for an evaluation. SAD can be treated with phototherapy, psychotherapy, or medication.

Be there for others

See someone else struggling too? If you notice a friend or family member feeling down and you want to help, simply extend yourself. Invite them over, send messages, or try to connect in any way. Allow them to talk.

Don’t forget that spending time with loved ones is definitely what the holidays are the most useful for and prioritize this over any other holiday demand. Take the opportunity to do simple and fun things with your children and whoever you get to be with – such as baking, watching holiday movies, skating or enjoying a cup of hot cocoa. Hopefully these tips will help you combat the holiday blues this season. Any other tips? Please leave a comment!

Mental health resources 

Although the holiday blues are not a recognized disorder, they can significantly affect your life. If you think you or someone you know can benefit from professional help, here is a short, non-exhaustive list of resources to get you started:

  • These are resources listed by Gemeente Delft, including ACCESS, a non-profit organization that provides referrals for counselling in English and other languages
  • This site assists with finding a therapist, though you must contact them to see which services are offered in other languages
  • A resource specifically for TU Delft PhD students
  • The National Dutch Suicide Prevention Centre offers several types of mental health services, including chat therapy and a self-help course.


Rosaleen is a Filipina-American who moved to Delft from Houston, Texas in 2017 with her husband, 5-year-old son, and 1-year-old daughter. She works at Leiden University as a researcher in environmental science and is enjoying Delftian life.


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