Recessional Holiday Stress and Blues


This year’s holiday stress and blues are sure to hit harder for most of us as the economy has tanked and our nation is at a turning point. There are a lot of scary things going on in the world, and I don’t have to name them for you.

As a psychiatrist I’m already seeing some of the toll in my outpatients and those in the hospital: there is a lot more anxiety, fear, overwhelm, confusion, and despair.

What can we do to get through all of this emotionally? A lot.

First, it will help to understand a few practical aspects of how the brain works.

Fear causes the brain to:

  1. Go into a “Danger” or “Threat” state
  2. In this state, our thinking:

    Becomes narrowed

    Becomes black and white, “all or nothing”

    It’s difficult to focus the mind on other things until we no longer feel threatened.

Fear puts a strain on our coping mechanisms

  1. We all fall apart in different ways:

    Trouble concentrating, distractibility

    Obsessing, anxiety, overwhelm, irritability, trouble sleeping, guilt

    Depressing, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness

    Panic attacks, confusion

  2. Our insecurities come out

    About our financial independence

    And about whether or not we’re “good enough”, a “success” or a “failure”

Fear is future oriented, depression is past oriented.

Stress is related to fear, fears about not being able to do what we need to, or is expected of us. Stress tells us we’re trying to do too much. If we listen to it and set limits it can be healthy. If we don’t regard it as a healthy signal of our limits we ignore it by telling ourselves we “should” be able to handle it, that we’re “less than” if we can’t. This is the path to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, and can also cause physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, cardio-vascular, abdominal or breathing problems. Get professional help with that!

Depression comes from believing that you are helpless, that you are worthless, or inadequate, and perhaps that there is no hope.

Sadness comes from acknowledging a loss, grieving, accepting in our heart that something or someone is gone, or that we can’t have something we want.

Depression is related to how we judge ourselves or how we believe others would judge us if they knew our details. Depression is related to shame and low self-worth, and is full of distorted thinking. Depression is an illness, which can be treated, while sadness is a normal human emotion.

Sadness, loss, not being able to have or hold onto what we want, not being able to give more to those we love, this is painful for all of us. Accepting these limitations without judging or blaming helps us move through it, while depressing, judging ourselves as inadequate or as a failure creates suffering which is totally unnecessary. In fact it also creates suffering for those around us.

Blues” may be simply feeling sad, or may be more like feeling depressed, with a lot of self-judgment.

Are you feeling sad, or depressed?

Expectations play a major role- these include our expectations of ourselves, and what we think others expect of us. If we cannot meet these expectations we can feel frustrated, ashamed, guilty, and judged, which leads to more negative feelings.

We can all see that this year there is more need than usual. Our partner, our kids, our society, the planet… humanity. Not to mention ourselves. And while there is more need than ever we probably have less to give– materially, as well as emotionally.

While taking better care of ourselves may or may not make us financially more productive (it probably would) it is likely to help us feel less stressed and less depleted, and we will have more to offer others. Self care is for everyone, “psychological problems” or not. Self care includes taking care of our Biological, Psychological, Social, and Spiritual needs. The concept is accepting our limits, financially, emotionally– not having to feel ashamed or judged about it. We will have more to give others when we put ourself first. We will be more present, focused, compassionate, and available.

Mindfulness Practice is now crossing over from East to West and becoming incorporated into mainstream psychological treatment. I believe it benefits EVERYONE to learn and practice it, and in many ways it is an antidote for these “afflictions.”


  1. Helps you get out of the past, out of the future, into the present.

    Increases awareness, focus, prioritizing, “presence,” connection with others

    Decreases depression, blues (past-oriented) and fear/anxiety (future-oriented)

    Feel relaxed

  2. Helps you clean out your “mental garbage”

    Reduce and eventually eliminate your self-judging, and fears of how others judge you

    Reduces insecurities, stabilizes self-esteem

    Feel more compassion for yourself and for others

    Improves intimacy and spirituality

  3. When we learn and practice mindfulness we have more inner “brain” resources for ourselves (problem solving and self-care) and for others!


  2. Learn and practice Mindfulness. See Bibliography.
  3. Spend focused time problem solving financial issues, budgeting, getting through current recession versus planning for future. Remember to save a little for yourself. Get consultation as needed. Plan to spend the minimum over the holidays.
  4. When not problem solving, tell your brain that there is NO CURRENT THREAT, that YOU ARE DOING ALL YOU CAN and YOU ARE NOT GOING TO DIE. You have to work at consciously turning OFF your BRAIN FEAR SWITCH so that you will function better and suffer less.
  5. Learn a relaxation technique. Practice it regularly. Breathing, Yoga, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Guided Imagery, Self Hypnosis. See Bibliography.
  6. Learn to take routine care of your Body, Mind, Social, and Spiritual needs. Get help with that.
  7. Make the holidays YOUR time. ACTIVELY CONTROL AND SET BOUNDARIES on how much time and energy you spend on yourself versus others.
  8. BE SAD about what you can’t do for others. Grieve it. Cry about it if you feel like. Then let it go. Tell people you love how sad you feel that you can’t do more for them. They will likely tell you the same. When you do that you are being present, real, intimate.
  9. Instead of stressing, depressing, blaming you can put your energies and time into CONNECTING with people you care about, honestly, expressing your sadness and love and also being able to get into the meanings and joys of the holidays rather than the materialism.
  10. Spend a few minutes each day acknowledging who and what you feel grateful for. Do something to appreciate yourself. Express gratitude to others.

Dr. Gelbart

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One thought on “Recessional Holiday Stress and Blues”

  • jacqueline scolaro LISW-S says:

    Dr. Gelbart,
    this page is colorful but a little hard to read. We facilitate a DBT group for people with disabilities at Blick Clinic in Akron Ohio. The holidays are especially difficult for them and we are going to run a three week “holiday DBT” session between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I found some of your ideas helpful.
    Thank you

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