For many, the holidays are the highlight of the year.
After Halloween passes, people eagerly anticipate the festivities of Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, and New Years. As the season changes, many people look forward to spending time with family and friends, reflecting on the past year together, looking ahead to everything that the New Year will bring.
While many people are buzzing with excitement during the holidays, this feeling is not universal. Countless people experience holiday depression, especially during November and December. Although depression can occur at any time of the year, a number of factors that are associated with this time of year can make even the most content people experience sadness, loneliness, or feeling unfulfilled.
Although the holidays are supposed to be a time for joy and celebration, for some, it is quite the opposite. With a heavy emphasis on family, the holidays may become unbearable for those who have no family, have experienced a loss of a loved one, or for those with a troubled family dynamic. With the added stress of unrealistic expectations, financial pressures, and too many commitments, the holidays can actually be a source of great stress and anxiety. This feeling is often worsened for those who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a disorder that is often referred to as ‘seasonal depression’. The lack of sunlight and colder weather can make certain people feel anxious or depressed around the winter months.
What Causes Holiday Depression?
Many people struggle with holiday depression, but not everyone is affected in the same way. However, there are often common factors that tend to influence depression. These include:
- Financial burdens
- Unrealistic expectations
- Inability to spend time with friends and family
- Perceived inability to cope with demands of others
Social isolation is one of the biggest influences on holiday depression. For those who are lonely or feel disconnected, the holidays may be painful. Often, those who experience these feelings will avoid social interactions during the holidays and withdraw even more, exacerbating the feelings of isolation they already have. They may see others with loved ones and begin to question their own relationships. Social media can often damage one’s self-confidence and make them doubt the integrity of their relationships. Countless posts and photos depicting smiling faces and connectedness may lead someone to believe that others are much happier than they are, even if that is not the case.
Grief is another major influence on holiday depression. The focus and emphasis on family, relationships, and happiness can be a painful reminder about what they used to have. This is especially true in cases where a person has experienced a significant loss, either due to a break-up or the death of a loved one. Just as Valentine’s Day can be difficult for those who have ended a relationship, the holidays can be difficult to deal with for people who have difficult family lives. While they may still experience some highs, they will undoubtedly be accompanied by lows.
What are Signs of Depression?
Balancing the demand of the holidays can contribute to an overall sense of stress, anxiety, and tension. Even if a person does not identify themselves as ‘depressed’, they may still develop physical and emotional symptoms that correlate with holiday depression. These include:
- Excessive drinking
- Feeling sad or discouraged
- Withdrawal from others
- Feeling slow or restless
In order to better prepare for the holidays, there are steps you can take to minimize the effects of holiday depression.
- Plan ahead: The holidays are usually a busy time with not much room for oneself. Planning ahead will allow you to take care of yourself during the holidays. Whether you choose to read a book, take a nap, or go for a walk, setting time aside for yourself is important in order to manage stress. Figure out what activities will help get you through the holidays, and make time for them in between your other responsibilities and plans.
- Avoid conflict: During the holidays, families often spend a great deal of time together. While it is nice to catch up and spend time with loved ones, undoubtedly you may face conflicts. If you already know this will happen, prepare neutral responses for these situations and plan an escape. Whether you go to the restroom, help out in the kitchen, or play with the kids, leaving the situation before it escalates will help you keep your sanity.
- Schedule time to sleep: The holidays can interfere with your sleep schedule. Whether it’s because you are staying up late with friends and family or getting up early to catch up on shopping, cleaning, or cooking, sleep loss has been linked to depression. Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time, and keep the bedroom free from distractions, such as a noisy television or buzzing cellphones
- Ask for help: You can easily overwhelm yourself during the holidays. Shopping for gifts, cooking, and attending activities can easily make an enjoyable time stressful. If you feel overwhelmed with everything and need help, do not be afraid to ask. Friends and family can easily help lighten your load and allow you to relax.
- Learn to grieve: The holidays can be especially stressful for those who have lost someone significant in their lives. Knowing that special person is not there can make you feel alone, angry, or even guilty for enjoying yourself during the holidays. There is no “right” way to feel or grieve when you lose someone, but talking about your feelings and reaching out for support is crucial.
- Stay active: It is easy to get lost in holiday activities. Exercise is often one of the first activities to go when people need to make more time for other obligations; however, stress can cause your mood to worsen, making exercise imperative. Exercise helps you relieve stress and releases endorphins that boosts your mood. In addition, it will help you combat the effects of overeating that often accompany the holidays.
- Focus on what is important: The emphasis on presents during the holidays can cause financial stress. Wanting to give the perfect gift to everyone can make it easy to stress about money instead of focusing on what the holidays are actually about. To save money, try baking gifts or organizing a gift exchange. Enjoy leisurely activities, such as going for a walk or playing board games, instead of investing money into a more expensive trip or activity.
- Avoid binge eating and drinking: During the holidays, it can be easy to overindulge. With all of the social gatherings happening around this time of year, eating lots of food and consuming alcohol often comes with the territory. Although it is easy to give in, it’s best to exercise some restraint. Eating copious amounts of food is not only unhealthy for your body, but it can also cause you to feel guilty afterward. This is true of alcohol as well; however, because alcohol is a depressant, it can worsen symptoms of holiday depression. Eat healthy meals as frequently as possible in order to prepare yourself for holiday dinners. You can enjoy holiday food without overindulging.
- Stop over-committing: During the holidays, you may be asked to participate in a greater number of activities than you normally would. In order to make everyone happy, you may commit to all of the events you are invited to attend, but this can cause more stress than joy. While the holidays are often focused on time with family and friends, it should not exhaust you to the point feeling stress or anxiety. Do not be afraid to turn down invitations and focus on yourself.
- Forget perfection: Seeing everyone’s ideas of what makes a perfect holiday season can cause some people feel “performance pressure”. This is especially true when you are inundated with photos from other families’ gatherings on social media. Some may become so focused on making the holidays perfect that they forget what really makes their loved ones happy. Focus on what you are grateful for and remember to participate in activities that bring you closer together and make everyone happy. Sometimes the simplest things are what make the holidays great.