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Coping with the Holiday Blues

Young woman feeling blue
by Lucy Zheng

In the rhythm of the Psychology academic year, Thanksgiving and the end-of-semester winter holidays are often a welcome respite.  But not for all! 

For some, accumulated unfinished graduate school tasks hover.  For others—LGBT students who come out at school, or working-class students exposed to a different lifestyle on campus, for example—the new perspectives that come with graduate learning can make going home a new kind of challenge.  

Other tensions—unresolved family dynamics, the financial strain of getting home, pressure to apply for grants or post-doctoral fellowships—can also intrude. 

So what can be done? Dr. Richard Ruth, a professor of clinical psychology at The George Washington University, offers some insights into preventing and coping with the holiday blues: 

  • Don’t expect an unrealistic holiday.  Media and cultural pressures can make us feel like we have to celebrate “perfect” holidays that don’t fit with our personal preferences, needs, values, or family cultures.  Freeing ourselves from pressures to “do it right” can help make holiday celebrations more relaxed and fun.
  • A holiday visit is unlikely to be the time to resolve big, longstanding tensions.  Research shows that holidays are not the best time to announce big changes or hold long-overdue discussions about controversial issues.  Even if you live far from your family, it is usually better to find another time for confrontations and difficult discussions.
  • Be aware of your own values and needs.  It’s great to help your family put on a holiday celebration.  But self-care is essential for graduate students, too.  Plan your visit to leave time to see old friends, take a break from a noisy, crowded household if needed, and get the rest and enjoyment you need.
  • Use your supports.  These can include peers, relational partners, members of the clergy, or perhaps focal counseling.  It can help to talk through in advance what to expect during a holiday visit, and to plan steps you can take if your visit turns stressful.
  • Take it easy.  Maybe planning a shorter visit, or finding a more affordable way to get home, or opting out of some family traditions in order to enjoy holiday activities that have become meaningful and enjoyable for you personally, can make for a better visit. 

Psychology knows some things about what can make holidays more satisfying and less taxing, but we don’t have an equation or a manual.  The main guideline to hold in mind:  consider your feelings and options, relax and have fun, and give yourself permission to have the best time you can during the holidays. 


Richard Ruth, PhD, is associate professor of clinical psychology at The George Washington University, where he also is a core faculty member in the interdisciplinary LGBT Health Policy and Practice graduate certificate program.

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