‘Tis that season when you hear “Joy to the World” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” everywhere you go. We think of the holidays as a joyful time, where we get to enjoy our families, food, and gifts. Yet for some, the holidays are a time of stress, sadness, and loneliness. Because of that, I’ve added this chapter on dealing with holiday depression.
Why are the holidays a depressing time for some people? Experts cite a number of reasons.
- Stress. The parties, the get-togethers, the shopping, the decorating, yes, it’s all fun, but it’s stressful too. Normal irritations can become magnified during the holidays.
- Pressure to be happy. When you see people around you happily saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” and stores are playing holiday music to get people in a shopping mood, you feel out of place if you cannot get into “the holiday spirit.”
- Unrealistic expectations. Comparisons often lead to depression. If you are comparing this holiday to ones in the past, you’ll feel disappointed if this year does not measure up. If your neighbors appear cheerful and have it all together better than you do, remember at home behind closed doors, they are probably as stressed as you.
- Doing too much. If just the thought of holidays brings stress and anxiety, it’s probably because you have done too much in the past. Maybe it’s time to scale back.
- Neglecting self-care. If you meditate and exercise, you might be tempted to put that on hold because you feel pressed for time. You might not be getting enough sleep or taking time during the day to decompress.
- Family strife. Spending time with family is the most important part of the holidays for most people. However, there might be some family you’d rather avoid.
- Overindulging. If you have depression, WebMD recommends you avoid food and drink that makes your blood sugar spike. This includes most of the holiday treats we love. Sugar highs and the inevitable crashes afterwards are not a recipe for holiday cheer. And of course overindulging in alcohol will not help.
- Isolation. Being apart from those you love never feels good. But during the holidays, you miss them even more. For those who have just moved to a new city, especially if they are single, they may not have made any friends where they are. They feel alone because they have no one to celebrate with.
- Grieving. The first holiday after the loss of your spouse or parents or children can be rough. If most of your best holiday memories are with someone who can no longer be with you, the loss you feel will be magnified during the holidays.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a condition where people become more depressed as the days get shorter. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, is timed perfectly for SAD.
- Post-holiday letdown. You manage to get your fill of holiday cheer in spite of the stress, and then it’s over. Until next year at least. As stressful as it was, some people miss the activity, the busyness, the holiday cheer, and the people who have gone back home.
- Overspending. Some people use “retail therapy” to cope with depression, and the holidays present every temptation to overspend. Buying those expensive gifts is a big hit with those you give to. Then the credit card bills arrive.
What you can do
- Set expectations low. The lower your expectations, the less you can be disappointed. Don’t expect everything to be perfect, and you won’t have a meltdown when it’s not.
- Plan ahead and Prioritize. Make a list of all the things you expect to do for the holidays, then prioritize. Schedule time for the most important things. If you don’t have time for everything on the list, some lower priority items have to go. Do you have to go to every party you’re invited to? Can someone else host the family Christmas party this year? Can you enlist friends and family to help with the preparations? Say no to a few things that are not high on the priority list. People will not be nearly as disappointed as you think.
- Set a budget. Know how much money you have to spend on each person before you start shopping. Don’t pressure yourself to buy the best and most expensive version. If you don’t trust yourself, bring a friend who will make you stick to your budget. The best gifts don’t have to cost anything. I honestly believe if I gave my wife a “coupon” for a free massage, she would like that better than a diamond necklace. Remember they want your presence more than your presents.
- Maintain healthy habits. Enjoy your treats, but remember to eat healthy, get enough sleep, and avoid overindulging. Keep up your exercise and meditation routines. If you don’t meditate, you should start. A few minutes of meditation can do wonders for stress. Whatever you normally do to de-stress, don’t forget to do it during the holidays.
- Manage family encounters. If you dread getting together with some family members, here are some options, listed in increasing severity.
- Set aside differences. Don’t get baited into those same old debates. If you argue with the same person every year, you already know what they are going to say. Resolve before you go in you will not waste any more time trying to set them straight. If they start, just say Merry Christmas, and talk to someone else. If there is some past slight you are still sore about, what better time to forgive than the holidays?
- Seek out the positive people. Instead of fretting over that relative who is always critical, think of the people you enjoy and seek them out. If you are busy with them, that means less time with negative people. You can ask the person arranging the seating to place you next to someone more supportive. Better to say, “Can you sit me next to this cousin?” than “Don’t sit me next to Aunt Martha.”
- Make an early exit. You can always make an appearance, and make sure those who need to see you do so. After a decent amount of time, you can say you have to go because of another commitment.
- Avoid certain people altogether. It is better for your mental health to forgive than to hold grudges. But if the pain is too raw, or if you know they are going to make you uncomfortable, then don’t go to the party or to their house unless you have to.
- Volunteer. Nothing is more in keeping with the season than helping someone in need. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or other community service. Helping others feels good and is often the best antidote for depression. You might even want to make it a new tradition.
- Community, Religious, or Social Events. Religious services have always been a part of my holiday tradition. With or without my family, I like being a part of them. If that is not your thing, look for other community and social events open to the public. They present low pressure opportunities to see old friends or meet new people with shared interests.
- Call friends and family. One year my sister was working as a missionary in Mexico. We celebrated Christmas as usual—me, my parents, and grandparents. In the afternoon, we used my iPad to call my sister on Skype. My grandparents were thrilled, not only to talk to her but to see her. It is easy these days to set up video chat online. Skype is still popular, though WhatsApp and Viber are more popular now. If you have an iPhone, Facetime is included. Bottom line, for your loved ones who are miles away, if you have a cell phone, tablet, or computer, you can contact them.
- Journal your feelings. I started keeping a journal in college. I journaled about things that happened to me, and how I felt about them. During bouts of depression, it was a lifeline for me. Which is why if you read my journals, you would probably think I was a basket case. But studies have shown that journaling your feelings, especially during times of grief or depression, helps people feel less depressed and less anxious. Darlene Mininni, author of The Emotional Toolkit, suggests writing for fifteen minutes three or four days in a row to start. If you don’t know what to write, you can prompt yourself by writing and answering questions like, “Why does this upset me?” or “What do I want to happen now?”
- Get counseling. If you can’t shake feelings of sadness, loneliness, or anxiety, it might be time to seek professional help. I’ve listed some websites where you can search for a counselor in your area (Appendix B). But first, you might want to read this guide on what to look for in a therapist. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/how-to-find-therapist#1
- Remember to be grateful. The holiday season starts with Thanksgiving. That’s a hint. Begin each day with just a minute or two to think of three things you are grateful for, and the rest of your day is likely to go better.
- Plan a post-holiday get-together. This is a way to ease any post-holiday letdown. Set a date to get together with a friend in mid or late January. This will give you something to look forward to after the holidays.
In my post called “The War on Thanksgiving,” I said this. “We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.”
The point I was trying to make is not to let commercialization take over the real meaning of the holidays. Sure, I buy gifts for whoever I’m spending Christmas with. I enjoy getting presents, but I also enjoy seeing their faces when they open a gift I gave them, especially when my niece and nephew are there. They are still young enough to approach Christmas morning with unbridled joy. Isn’t that what we really want from the holidays? To give and receive joy?
So whatever you do, whether it’s decorating, baking, making the holiday dinners, trimming the tree, eating with family and friends, shopping for gifts, making gifts, volunteering, attending religious services, whatever your traditions are, or if you think it’s time to start a new tradition, do it with the intent of spreading joy. That is the surest way I know to have a happy Thanksgiving, happy Chanukah, merry Christmas, happy Kwanzaa, happy Boxing Day, happy New Year and Dia de los Reyes. And a happy Festivus for the rest of us.
Kerr, M. Medically reviewed by Legg, T. J., Ph.D., PMHNP-BC. Holiday depression. Healthline Newsletter. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/holidays#1
Mann, D. Emotional survival guide for the holidays. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/emotional-survival-guide-for-holidays#1
Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544
Minnini, D., PhD, MPH. (2006). The Emotional Toolkit. St. Martin’s Press. Available in libraries or at https://www.overdrive.com/media/1571599/the-emotional-toolkit
WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Bhandari, S., MD. “Foods to avoid if you have anxiety or depression.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/ss/slideshow-avoid-foods-anxiety-depression
WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Goldberg, J., MD. “Holiday depression and stress.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/holiday-depression-stress#1