Feeling depressed around the holidays can feel particularly excruciating, and being surrounded by merry people can amplify unhappy thoughts. Am I just broken? Isn't this supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year"? For many, depression worsens around the holidays. While it won't take away your pain, it can be comforting to know that you are far from alone.
Today, it's not uncommon to make remarks like, "I'm so depressed," after a few bad days, but it's important to differentiate between holiday sadness and true depression. WebMD describes "the blues" as feelings of sadness, loneliness, or grief during a difficult life experience or season of life and makes this important distinction: "Most of the time, you can continue to function. You know that in time you will bounce back, and you do." For someone experiencing depression, these feelings don't dissipate over time. That sadness is pervasive and long-lasting, the site explains, often interfering with work and life, disrupting your eating and sleeping habits.
For those suffering with depression, the holidays can exacerbate symptoms and make the situation more dire. However, the holidays can also cause intense feelings of sadness for people who have never experienced depression previously. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states, "Holiday blues are different from mental illness, but short-term mental health problems must be taken seriously. They can lead to clinical anxiety and depression."
Most importantly, if your holiday depression escalates into suicidal thoughts or ideations during the season, it's crucial to reach out for help. While all circumstances are unique, here are some common reasons you may find yourself feeling down or depressed, and different ways you can prioritize your own mental health and self-care.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.
1. Increased Demands
Most of us are off work during the holidays, but that doesn't mean life is any less busy. Work parties, gatherings with friends, family events, school performances, religious services, traveling, cooking, shopping for gifts... there is a lot going on. While some people thrive with a busy schedule, it can make others feel overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed.
Treat your energy and time as a precious commodity during the holiday season. Even the "fun stuff" can take a toll. Remember, you don't have to do everything. If you feel yourself getting rundown or stressed, take a timeout and do something that helps you relax. If you're swamped with responsibility, ask for help. As Dr. Susan Biali explained to Psychology Today, "If your life is too busy, if you have no time at all for rest or leisure, or for the health fundamentals (sleep, good nutrition, and exercise) that keep us well – I’d be surprised if you weren’t at least a little depressed!"
2. Family Issues
Look, we all love our families, but that doesn't mean they're without conflict or dysfunction. When you get all of your relatives under one roof for major holidays, it's not uncommon for there to be a little bit of drama, whether they're explosive fights or tension boiling under the surface. Even if everything looks peachy on the outside, you may be suffering internally with unspoken or unresolved feelings.
If you're struggling with family issues, it's helpful to set clear boundaries, whether that means limiting your time at family gatherings or saying "no" to certain invitations altogether. Meredith Janson, a licensed professional counselor based in Washington D.C., told Psych Central that this can be extremely beneficial. "In psychological terms, it’s a catch-phrase meaning setting limits or asserting your thoughts, feelings, and needs even when these are in opposition to the person with whom you’re interacting," explained Janson. For some, moderation is key when it comes to actual face time with the family.
When there is so much to do, how can you possibly say no? Well, when your own mental health is on the line, it's important that you do. "At the holidays, the pressure of trying to do everything ― plan the perfect holiday, make it home to see your family, say yes to every event, meet those year-end deadlines ― can be enough to send anyone into a tail spin," explains Huffington Post writer Carolyn Gregoire. "And if you’re prone to anxiety and depression, stress (and a lack of sleep) can take a significant toll on your mood." The Mayo Clinic confirms that stress can make you feel anxious, depressed, restless, and irritable.
Be mindful of your own needs, and realistic about how much you can do. Yes, that fourth Christmas party sounds like a lot of fun, but will it really be enjoyable if you're exhausted and run ragged? Prioritize the events and people that are most important to you, and give yourself space and time to breathe (and sleep) in between.
4. Financial Stressors
The money in your bank account (or lack thereof) can cause major issues around the holidays. A 2015 survey of 1,000 adults by the Principal Financial Group found that "53% of those polled feel holiday spending will stress their finances, with 11% saying it will put a 'great deal of stress' on their financial situation." Between gifts, food, traveling, and other holiday expenses, it's not too surprising that people are feeling the financial strain.
No one likes feeling cheap or saying no, but sometimes that's exactly what you've gotta do. Explain to your relatives that traveling out of state simply isn't in the family budget this year. Set a strict spending limit on gifts, and don't feel obligated to buy gifts for everyone in your life. Don't spend money you don't have. While the initial conversations may be difficult, they're worth it to avoid some of that financial stress.
5. Social Isolation & Loneliness
Maybe you have a super small social circle, you aren't close with your family, or you live too far away to see them. Whatever your circumstances, loneliness can feel amplified over the holidays. With television blasting images of happy families and social media turning into a holiday party highlight reel, it often feels like you're the only one without a big network of support.
Verywell Mind has a variety of suggestions for those struggling with loneliness over the holidays, from pampering yourself with spa treatments, learning a new hobby, volunteering, and speaking to others who feel lonely. Rethinking expectations can also help you cope: "Realize that few people’s lifestyles truly measure up to 'movie standards' of perfect living, and shift your focus to all the great things you do have in your life," wrote author Elizabeth Scott, MS. "Realizing that it's just fine to take a good friend (instead of 'the perfect date') to a holiday party, or that the flawed love of a difficult family member still counts as love, has helped many people feel less lonely."
6. Seasonal Affective Disorder
From personal experience, the short days, cold weather, and lack of sunshine that many regions experience over the holiday season can be brutal. I'm not ashamed to say I survived my three years in Chicago with the help of light box therapy, anti-depressants, and daily gym sessions. If you notice your mood begin to drop as the winter hits, you're not alone.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that women are four times more likely than men to experience this Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and the added stress of the holidays can make things even worse. Symptoms include "low energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain, craving for carbohydrates, and social withdrawal." The most common treatment methods for SAD are medication, light therapy, psychotherapy, and Vitamin D.
7. Straying From Your Routine
If you find comfort in routine, the holidays can be incredibly disorienting and stress-inducing. With busy schedules and so many festivities, many of us indulge in holiday treats, stay up too late, drink more than usual, and forget the gym exists. While this seems like all fun and games, it can backfire. Losing sleep, overeating, and drinking can all trigger anxiety and depression.
Psychiatrist Mark Sichel spoke to Huffington Post and urged people to stick to their routines. "Take care of yourself — don’t overeat and over-drink,” he explained. “Do your regular routines of exercise and whatever keeps you together during the year.” Plenty of endorphins, sufficient ZZZs, and a clear head can help you avoid falling into a low place over the holidays.
8. Missing a Loved One
If you've lost a loved one, the holidays can highlight their absence and worsen your grief. It can be incredibly difficult to celebrate a holiday without them, and beloved traditions may seem empty or painful without them there with you. Instead of being a happy time, holidays become a painful reminder that someone important is missing. As Deborah Jonsson, public relations manager at Avow Hospice, told Health.com, "All feelings are a sign that you're human and reflect where you are in your healing process."
Honor those feelings, and understand and accept that your holidays will look different from now on. Keep the traditions that make you happy, and ditch the ones that don't feel right. Start new traditions. Most importantly, find support with family, friends, or professionals, and avoid isolating yourself. Speak about how you're feeling, and understand that your grief is valid and normal.
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