The holidays conjure up images of twinkling lights, families trimming trees, and parties overflowing with decadent desserts and laughter. But for many people, these cheerful visions are overshadowed by the stress, fatigue, and isolation caused by holiday depression.
What is holiday depression?
The “holiday blues” is not just an expression or cliché—clinicians worldwide have acknowledged that holiday and seasonal depression are very real. While some individuals may experience sadness related to traumas or past memories tied to this time of year, others may have clinical depression that is brought on by seasonal change.
Individuals who are most at risk are those who are socially isolated. If you find yourself in a smaller social circle, the idea of holiday togetherness may make you feel lonely or overwhelmed. Those feelings can, in turn, cause even more retreat, heightening your risk of holiday depression. Comparing ourselves to others, especially if we’re looking at social media, where we see only the best, happiest, and most staged moments can dredge up feelings of inadequacy or loneliness.
Memory and tradition also play important roles in the holiday season, which can evoke feelings of sadness if you find yourself reminiscing about happier times or people you miss. The stress of performing every family tradition or ritual, or feeling like you have to attend every holiday function, can be overwhelming—especially if you’re already prone to depression or anxiety.
If you’re unsure whether you or someone you care about is suffering from holiday depression, some key questions to ask are whether you or your loved one are:
- more withdrawn or less responsive than usual?
- more irritable?
- experiencing trouble sleeping or changes in appetite?
- behaving more impulsively?
If the answer is yes, it’s a good idea to see a doctor or find a mental health care professional to talk to.
Grieving or coping with loss during the holidays
Although most holiday depression is linked to stress, grief can also be overpowering if you’ve lost a loved one, whether recently, many years ago, or even during a different time of year. The traditional and commercial emphasis on holiday togetherness can make the absence of someone you love feel more profound. Alternatively, you may feel cheered by the holiday spirit, which can lead to a sense of guilt that the loved ones you miss aren’t there to share in your happiness.
Grief is different for everyone and can manifest sometimes when we least expect it. A familiar scent can send us straight into a memory, or a holiday song can suddenly feel tinged with sadness. But there are ways you can help prepare yourself for the emotional toll of coping with loss during the holidays.
- Give yourself permission to say no. You don’t have to accept every invitation you get, and it’s okay to leave a party or gathering if you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed.
- Plan ahead for the most stressful events. Instead of spending days or weeks dreading a holiday event, make a plan for how you’ll get through it and relax afterward. If you can, try to visualize everything going smoothly.
- Make new traditions. Honor your loved one by lighting a candle, making their favorite food, or changing your celebration to reflect new joys in your life.
Healthy strategies to ease holiday depression
Stress and isolation, memory and tradition, and short days with long nights can all contribute to holiday depression, but there are ways to temper sadness that may appear toward the end of the year. Most experts agree that self-care should be number one on your list if you want to beat the holiday blues. The holidays are often a time of indulgence and excess; it’s best to enjoy all of it in moderation by avoiding overeating and excessive drinking, which can exacerbate depression and anxiety. Try to maintain a healthy sleep schedule and get regular exercise, even if it’s a quick walk in a park to reconnect with nature and get away from stress for just a few minutes.
Pace yourself, and be realistic about what you can achieve—the holidays often bring unrealistic expectations that can lead to let-downs. Volunteering or giving to others can also take the focus off your own problems and inflate your sense of goodwill toward others. Finally, if you’re extremely uncomfortable with your surroundings during the holidays—change them. Book a hotel out of town and explore some new scenery.
You’re not alone
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that approximately one in five adults will suffer from mental illness each year. So, even if you don’t experience it yourself, you almost certainly know someone who will. Holiday depression can be debilitating, but this is also the season of hope. If you feel like you have to escape, have nothing to live for, or might harm yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
The Hope for Depression Research Foundation, founded by Audrey Gruss, is actively working to better understand, treat, and prevent depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Gruss, whose mother suffered from clinical depression, was also inspired to honor her mother through Hope Fragrances, a fragrance company that seeks to raise awareness about depression and fund cutting-edge research.