Depression and the Holidays

Holiday cheer can be particularly difficult to muster when you’re prone to or currently battling depression. If you’re already living with symptoms of depression like fatigue, insomnia, sadness, or severe pessimism, this time of year can make you feel even more overwhelmed than usual. Even if your symptoms are generally under control, holiday strain has the potential to nudge you back into the dark clutches of this challenging disorder.

Common Triggers for Depression

The holiday season, which includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, can be especially challenging for anyone prone to depression. While the reasons may be different from one individual to the next, there are several common stressors that can trigger or exacerbate depression. They include: Feelings of loss: The holidays are especially known for eliciting memories of happier times. This makes them particularly difficult if you’ve recently experienced a loss in your life, such as the death of a loved one, a painful divorce, or a breakup with a romantic partner. You may be overcome with feelings of loss and sadness as you longingly recall holiday traditions or experiences once shared with someone who’s no longer there to celebrate the season with you. Financial stress: The holidays can take quite a toll on your finances. From buying gifts for friends and loved ones to the increased food prices that make holiday parties and traditional feasts more expensive, the holidays’ strain on your wallet can easily trigger or fuel symptoms of depression, especially if financial worries are already present. Seasonal affective disorder: Also called SAD for short, this particular type of depression occurs seasonally each year – most commonly during the dark and dreary winter months, which of course coincide with the holiday season. While no one understands the exact cause of SAD, experts suspect it is linked to low light levels that have a negative effect on the body’s natural brain chemistry. Unrealistic expectations: Whether you grew up with Currier & Ives scenic prints or jaunty Target television ads, the fact is we’ve always been surrounded by images of happy family gatherings and wonderfully romantic holiday moments. The reality is often quite different, unfortunately. For many, along with cheer the holidays also bring fussy, overtired children, nagging relatives, and meals that look nothing like the one on the magazine cover. That feeling that you’ve somehow fallen short of the ideal – or are missing out on the joy that everyone else is supposedly experiencing – can generate feelings of guilt, loneliness, helplessness, and overwhelming disappointment and sadness.

Tips for Coping

Once you start experiencing symptoms of depression they can quickly spiral out of control. This makes it critical for anyone prone to depression to be proactive. Following are several things you can do to reduce the chance that this holiday season will plummet you into a depressive episode or worsen an already existing one: Acknowledge the emotions you feel. This may seem counterintuitive, but resisting or suppressing painful emotions always backfires. Whether you’re overwhelmed by the sheer craziness of an overloaded schedule or feeling the profound loss of a loved one, you must take time to recognize those emotions. Consider journaling your thoughts and feelings in a private diary. If you’re struggling with the death of someone close to you, seek out a local church service (sometimes called a “Blue Christmas” service) intended for those dealing with loss over the holidays.

  1. Honor lost loved ones. If memories of a loved one who has passed are making this holiday season hard, find a way to honor that person. For example, purchase or make a special tree ornament or light a candle of remembrance. Another wonderful way to honor loved ones is to volunteer at a charity that was especially close to their heart.
  2. Seek support. Regardless of what stressors or emotions trigger your depressive symptoms, seek out additional support by finding a network of people who also struggle with depression. By participating in support groups, either online or locally (in person is usually best), you’ll discover a network of others who have walked the same path you’re walking right now. Group members can provide helpful insight and perspective as well as share resources to help you stave off symptoms.
  3. Be realistic. Holiday activities – from frenzied dinners to group shopping trips – often put bonds with family and friends under a microscope. Unfortunately, that can strain even the healthiest relationships. As the holidays approach, take a step back and create a realistic vision for this time of year. For example, if you have a sibling who never contributes to the holiday feast you host, don’t expect anything different this year. Doing so only invites a surge of negative emotions. If your sibling shows up with a side dish this year, it will be a delightful and lovely surprise; if not, don’t let it add to your stress.
  4. Learn to say “no.” This time of year brings an inevitable slate of extra activities and demands on your time and energy. Whether it’s a school concert or a toy drive, many holiday events require volunteers like you. However, your mental health must be a high priority. Invest your limited energy into only one or two events that are personally important to you, and let others handle the rest.
  5. Plan your activities. Last-minute scrambles to buy holiday decorations, tidy the guest bedroom, or purchase gifts can make it seem like the world is falling in on you. This creates a high stress environment that makes it easier to slip into a depression. Take simple steps to keep this type of stress at bay by designating a certain day of the week as “errand” day and sketching out menus or other activities in advance. You’ll feel less frantic and scattered, making it easier to relax and enjoy the season.
  6. Ask for help. The feeling that everyone else’s enjoyment rests on your shoulders is a heavy burden for anyone. One way to counteract that anxious feeling is by enlisting others to help you. For instance, if you host the entire family for Christmas dinner, ask guests to bring a side dish and assign clean-up duties and other tasks to specific individuals.
  7. Schedule downtime. No matter how packed your schedule might be, it’s absolutely essential to your emotional well-being to take time out for yourself. Stepping away from the busyness and chaos will allow you to refresh your mind and keep depressive symptoms at bay. Make time to do something that lifts your spirit, whether it’s reading a book, taking a walk in the park, or indulging in a bubble bath. Be sure to make getting sufficient sleep a high priority
  8. Limit (or forgo altogether) alcohol intake. Fancy wines, cocktails, and champagne are especially plentiful during the holidays. However, alcohol and depression are not a good combination. Abusing alcohol can increase the risk for depression, according to numerous studies [1]. So when it’s time for that rum-spiked eggnog or punch, take a polite pass.
  9. Maintain healthy habits. Alcohol isn’t the only path to overindulgence this time of year. It’s all-too-easy to overeat at parties or neglect exercise in favor of festivities. Give yourself a healthy mental foundation by sticking to a balanced diet, maintaining a regular exercise routine, and getting plenty of sleep.
  10. Develop a budget. The stresses of holiday overspending can jumpstart feelings of depression. Set a budget before you start buying, and then stick to it. Take a copy of the budget with you on shopping trips, and mark off items as you purchase them. Another way to lower money-related stress is to stay organized. For example, keep a special envelope specifically to collect holiday-related receipts.
  11. From loneliness to grief, the painful emotions that are often elicited by the holidays can be a challenge if you live with or are prone to depression. Don’t wait for those feelings to overwhelm you and trigger or worsen symptoms. Be proactive and use the tips above to help keep depression at bay. You deserve to have a happy, joyful holiday season this year – and all the years to come.
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