Holiday Depression: Why It Happens, What To Avoid, How To Cope
Since 1963, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as recorded by Andy Williams has been a holiday staple. And indeed, that is a bold statement. But not everyone agrees with this sentiment, and certainly not when they are experiencing holiday depression.
In fact, some people report feeling anxious as soon as they start hearing Christmas music playing everywhere ad nauseam. After all, the holidays can be a significant source of stress due to financial constraints, the pressure to entertain, and family conflict that seems to only arise at the worst possible time.
For others, the holidays can be lonely. Days are short, sometimes dark and cold, and if you’ve ever lost a loved one around this time, it has the potential to become a constant reminder.
Moreover, the idealized notion of what the holiday experience is supposed to be like can sometimes fall vastly short of expectations. And watching others enjoy it seemingly without pause can be even more frustrating. All this can be pretty tough for people to handle – even those who don’t suffer from clinical depression.
Fortunately, there are ways you can modify your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and activities and boost your ability to successfully navigate life during this time.
Risk Factors To Avoid
Having unrealistic expectations – no one is perfect, and no holiday is perfect.
Don’t set yourself up for disappointment. It’s okay to try your best, but don’t beat yourself up if something goes wrong under your watch. It’s not your responsibility to make everyone else happy.
Putting too much on your plate, figuratively, not literally. What I mean is, expecting too much from yourself and overloading yourself with responsibilities. Slow down, and delegate if you need to. Sometimes people receive Christmas gifts late, and sometimes we just don’t get to all the things that we originally planned.
Comparing your holiday experience to someone else’s. Your experience will be uniquely you, and that’s okay. We don’t all have picture-perfect families. Some of us suffer from mental and physical illnesses, social phobia, past trauma, and many other troubles.
Neglecting self-care. Don’t slack on your normal healthy habits such as exercise, meditation, hobbies, and activities that make you happy. Skipping regular routines can quickly throw a lot of people out of balance, and this puts you at risk for negative thoughts and feelings – and ultimately, holiday depression.
Putting too much on your plate, literally. It’s okay to indulge during the holidays, but don’t make it a habit. You can still treat yourself and enjoy holiday dinners without getting ridiculous in your food and drink choices. Nothing feels worse on top of stress than weight gain and lethargy.
Tips For Keeping Holiday Depression At Bay
Make a plan and set realistic goals. Whatever you may be facing, be it a dysfunctional family environment or your first year of sobriety, make a list of factors that are potential stressors, and devise corresponding habits you can employ to make your experience better for yourself.
Avoid family conflict whenever possible. Prepare neutral responses for people who may try to engage you with drama, and designate a time-out location where you can relax and regroup rather than enable an argument.
If you suffer from grief, mental illness, or other emotional condition, reach out to support groups or a counselor/therapist. This is also true if you are battling substance abuse or are in recovery.
Take the stress out of gift-giving and preparing meals. Arrange a gift exchange rather than feeling like you need to shop for everyone. Organize a potluck meal rather than preparing everything yourself.
Make sure you get enough rest. Staying busy sometimes mean we forget to go to sleep on time. Skimping on sleep can quickly lead to holiday depression and anxiety. Try to keep a relatively consistent sleep schedule and avoid late-night binge eating at all costs.
Get exercise. Even if you don’t typically, now is a great time to start. Many gyms offer extremely low monthly rates, and you might even find some great holiday sign-up deals. If you’d rather workout at home, there are plenty of low-impact beginner routines on YouTube and the Internet with exercises that are suitable for most levels of physicality.
Remember that’s it’s okay to check out of events and gatherings. If you just can’t do it, volunteer at a homeless shelter or do something low-key like go out to a Chinese restaurant with a friend.
A Word About Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
The winter months can wreak havoc on those who experience SAD, and actually, holiday blues can be mistaken for this type of depression. If you suspect that you may have SAD, talk to your doctor.
If you already know you have SAD, feel free to use all the tools you have in your arsenal to battle it, such as taking long walks during daylight hours or using a light box for a few minutes whenever you feel like it.
The key approach for staving off holiday depression is to just take care of yourself and not overload yourself with too many responsibilities and negative thoughts and feelings.
Engage in self-care and rather than neglect them due to time constraints, prioritize the activities your require in your life to cope. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family, support groups, doctors, or mental health professionals if you need it for any reason.
Wishing you all a happy holiday season,
G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology