How is it that the holidays find a way to combine all these stressors into one full-blown anxiety-ridden experience? Starting from Halloween to New Year’s Eve, stores sell jolly via every gift bag and window display. But if the holidays are more of a depression trigger, you’re not alone.
For many people, holidays are extra pressure where a lot feels out of your control and possibly negative. Normal circumstances and bittersweet nostalgia can hit especially hard during this theoretically joyous season.
Regardless of the holidays’ supposed point — merriment — it’s unfortunately common for people to feel more stressed than usual.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 64 percent of people already coping with a mental illness report that it becomes exacerbated during the holiday season.
For some, this time of year also comes with the pressure to prove yourself, spend excessive amounts of money, and act happy no matter how you feel. It’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed, sad, or even depressed as you navigate this.
Everyone might have a different reason for these emotions, but they’re all valid, equally worthy of acknowledgment and care.
Identifying what’s causing your holiday depression, whether it be one factor or a myriad of compounding pieces, is the first step towards a more resilient and healthier you. In this article, we’ll cover:
- countering the cause of your holiday depression
- what to do about it
- when to reach out to a professional
With pressure to come off a certain way and empty your bank account to buy gifts for people you only kind of like, it’s no wonder you might feel stressed or depressed. To help with that, you’ll need to identify what’s causing your mental state.
It can be scary to face these emotions, but feeling them is the first step toward accepting that you can do something about them.
Here are seven common reasons holiday depression hits hard and what to do about them:
1. If you’re forcing yourself to be happy, try…
You don’t have to be as excited about the holidays as everyone around you acts like they are. You might have experienced grief during this holiday in years past or are exhausted from the other reasons listed below. Memories of the past and present are all valid reasons to feel down.
“Expectations of togetherness, harmony, being loved and supported, and celebrating together can leave many people feeling very disappointed, sad, and even more lonely,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College.
Instead of pretending to be happy every moment — no one is — allow yourself to feel any negative emotions and process them.
Another helpful technique can be to find a positive activity. Think about something you would genuinely enjoy doing over the holidays. Do you want to make a paper turkey hand like when you were a kid? Cook your family’s apple pie? Lean into big and small joys with your loved ones.
2. Burnout this time of the year is real: Be intentional with your energy
Reaching the end of a year can be a doozy, especially after a rocky year when there’s no telling what the next one will bring. In this case, you’re bound to be burnt out as the holidays approach, especially when navigating what celebrating will look like.
While you may be inclined to go along with what other people expect of you for the holidays, ignoring your mental needs can be dangerous — especially if you’re put in a difficult situation.
Saltz cautions that forced interaction with toxic people in your life or family, and an increase in alcohol can exacerbate feelings of depression.
Instead, think about who you’d like to spend time with over the holidays, virtually or not, and what would revive you. While self-care can feel a bit general, there are so many science-backed ways to take care of your mental health.
Throw a dance party with your circle, sit with a good book, or redecorate your space for a fresh start in the new year. Whatever you choose, do it because you know it will make you feel better.
3. Feeling the intensity of social isolation? Reach out
Do you live far away from loved ones or are you unable to see them over the holidays for health reasons? “Isolating and being socially withdrawn exacerbates depressive symptoms,” says Tasia Milicevic, a psychotherapist and owner of TMR Mental Health Care.
While in-person communication can be helpful in many ways, the connection to other people that can be felt over the phone or video chat is amazing. If you know you’re going to be isolated over the holidays, plan virtual meetings in advance.
You don’t have to wait until the first night of Hanukkah to reach out. “Scheduling regular video calls with friends and loved ones could increase connectedness and feelings of hope,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, M.D., a psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry.
Staying connected with friends and family regularly leading up to the holiday season can keep feelings of loneliness at bay. If the lack of connection continues to weigh on you, Magavi also recommends looking into online support groups filled with people having similar experiences.
4. Facing unmet expectations or failed goals
Let’s be completely honest here: No one had the year they expected or achieved everything they set out to on January 1st. With that said, it’s natural to feel self-conscious about what you provide as an update to friends and family when reporting on your year.
“Pressure to spend too much, fear of disappointing others, feeling competitive or like a failure often comes up at holidays,” says Saltz. “We often regress to earlier versions of ourselves around family of origin.”
When family members ask why you’re not in a relationship, what stopped you from getting a promotion, or other frustrating questions, remember that you did the best you could in the situation you were given.
Realizing you did the best you could is the most incredible accomplishment you can have.
5. Log off to avoid commercialization and shopping fatigue
From Black Friday until Christmas Day, it’s easy to become distracted by flashy ads that overpromise on the emotional benefits.
And while retail therapy is a thing, it’s not the only answer to getting your serotonin levels running. Milicevic warns against falling into the trap of over-commercialization and consumerism to fight depression.
Two things here: Learn that this is an important time to say no (to yourself, especially if you have financial stress) and divorce yourself from the idea that a gift is what conveys care.
Remember that there are different ways to express care for yourself and others. If you’re particularly feeling the brunt of capitalism, try swapping the time you’d use to research gifts with writing letters or creating something.
6. Increased money stress? Make a budget
In an awful domino effect, the negative association with consumerism around the holidays fuels financial stress. “Some individuals cannot afford to buy loved ones’ gifts due to job loss or debt, and this can trigger feelings of helplessness and guilt,” says Magavi.
Consider implementing a spending cap with anyone you’re planning on exchanging gifts with, skipping them altogether, or making something for them. At a time when simply having each other feels like such a privilege, the amount you spend on a present is even less important.
7. Major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern? Focus on your mental health
Also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), this type of depression can feel more intense with the time of year, weather, and light exposure. This pattern affects about 5 percent of adults in the U.S., lasting an average of 40 percent of the year.
In many cases, the winter months trigger it as the cold weather sets in and the days are at their shortest — also when the holidays occur.
This type of depression can make it harder for some people to cope with the holidays and find joy during this time.
“Children tell me that they do not feel like playing with their favorite toys or with their closest friends when the season changes,” says Magavi. “Adults tell me that they can hardly get out of bed in the morning during fall and winter months.”
Take the time to examine how you feel and speak with trusted friends or a mental health hotline. Explain your mental stress as thoroughly and honestly as you feel comfortable doing.
While this can be scary, remember that loved ones want you to feel your best, and they want to help you get there in any way they can.
Devices like sun lamps and supplements like vitamin D may also help. But if SAD is severely dampening your ability to feel joy or look forward to celebrations, you might want to seek professional help.
While any mental upset should not be dismissed or minimized, the treatment required varies based on the severity. To start, determine if what you’re feeling is holiday depression or something else.
“Sadness does not equal depression,” says Saltz. “Depression means several weeks of feeling sad or hopeless, helpless, guilty, irritable, much of the day, every day.”
“Depression alters your ability to sleep, changes your appetite, lowers your sex drive, lowers your concentration, decreases your ability to take pleasure in anything, and tends to make you withdraw from others.”
Speaking with mental health professionals can help because they’ll understand what you’re experiencing. They have devoted their careers to normalizing mental health issues and treating them.
They’ll work with you to paint an accurate picture of your feelings, and they’ll provide an accurate diagnosis.
Once that’s determined, you can begin treatment involving anything from learning coping mechanisms with a therapist to starting prescription medication. This step will allow you to begin healing.
If medication isn’t the route for you, other coping mechanisms such as changes in behavior, exercise, and talk therapy are all incredible ways to manage depression around the holidays. Despite these emotions’ seasonality, making change is a feat you can do, one step at a time.
A note about medication:
For anyone experiencing seasonal depression, antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be prescribed temporarily or on an ongoing basis.
“SSRI’s work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain.” says Milicevic. “Based on the symptoms, medication can be recommended in hopes to reduce and eventually diminish the symptoms.”
Commonly prescribed SSRIs include Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (Sertraline), Lexapro (escitalopram), and Paxil (paroxetine).
A mental health professional can help you determine if medication is the right choice for dealing with holiday depression.