December 12, 2023

How To Handle Holiday Depression When It Hits Home

The holidays can be hard on your mental health, but there are ways to cope

Person in foreground hunched over in sadness as family decorates holiday tree in background

The holidays are often a mixed bag of emotions. For some, it’s the most wonderful time of the year filled with family, friends and reasons to celebrate. For others, it may be a time of deep sorrow, reflection, loneliness and strife. And with unfortunate events happening across the world all year long, a celebration of any kind may be the furthest from your mind.

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We know things can get tough, especially during the winter as you dip your toe into the holiday season. But you don’t have to navigate holiday depression alone. Psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD, outlines the causes of this holiday depression, some signs you’re experiencing it — even if you don’t realize it — and how to manage these challenging holiday times.

What is holiday depression?

Holiday depression feels a lot like regular depression, but it’s triggered by the onset of holidays, holiday get-togethers, large family gatherings, and attending or hosting social events. Holiday depression is similar to “winter blues,” but it may come and go in quick bursts as one event ends and another begins, or it can linger for the days or weeks leading up to and beyond the holiday season.

“Holiday depression can happen to anybody of any age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or other demographic variables because there are so many things that could trigger it,” clarifies Dr. Potter.

“Someone might experience it because they’re a student who’s away on an internship and they can’t afford to go home for Christmas. Somebody else might experience it because they’re only one of a few Jewish people in a small town and everybody keeps wishing them Merry Christmas all the time and they might feel excluded or unseen. And someone else might experience it because they lost a loved one and they feel incredibly lonely.”

Like a late-October snowstorm in the Midwest, holiday depression can strike anyone at any time and sometimes, even when they least expect it.

“With holiday depression, there’s a sense of being on the outside looking in, and that idea that everybody else is having a great time when you’re not or don’t feel like you can,” explains Dr. Potter.

Causes of holiday depression

The holidays, like many other events, can impact people in a lot of different ways. Depending on what’s going on in your life right now, and in the world around you, holiday depression can cause a disruption to your relationships, your mental health and your ability to manage everything that comes along with the holiday season. But what causes it, exactly?

Holidays, in particular, can be hard on mental health, especially if you’re dealing with any of the following:

  • Stressful schedules. Burnout can really inhibit how you’re feeling about yourself and others you care about. And when you’re overwhelmed with stress, it can lead to depression. “If you’re in a large family, it can be incredibly stressful trying to balance different holiday obligations and coordinating schedules, especially if you have kids,” notes Dr. Potter.
  • Putting pressure on yourself. If you’re the person organizing or hosting a holiday gathering, you’re probably putting a lot of pressure on yourself to live up to very high expectations you set for yourself.
  • Separation from loved ones. “If a family has experienced loss or are separated from a loved one, that can make the holidays a sad time,” Dr. Potter adds.
  • Loneliness. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one or if you don’t have a family to celebrate the holidays with, isolation can lead to loneliness, grief and depression at a time of year when so much emphasis is put on celebrating with others. “The holidays can sometimes shine a spotlight on what you feel you’re lacking in life,” empathizes Dr. Potter.
  • Family dynamics. Many people find the holidays stressful because of conflicts and feuds within their family.
  • Seasonal depression. The holidays coincide with the onset of winter, when it gets dark earlier and temperatures plunge. As a result, seasonal depression (seasonal affective disorder) rises at the same time, sometimes impacting the holiday experience.
  • Social anxiety. If you’re routinely distressed when entering social gatherings and participating in events, connecting with others over the holiday can feel excruciating and trigger a wellspring of emotions.
  • Holiday trauma. Trauma rears its ugly head in all kinds of ways. If you’ve had difficulty with holidays in the past, or experienced medical emergencies or types of trauma during previous holiday seasons, that time of year can sometimes muck up your yum if it reminds you of what you’ve been through before.

“People who are in these circumstances sometimes assume that everyone else is having a happy, stress-free holiday,” Dr. Potter notes. “And that can really make what you’re feeling that much more challenging.”

Signs of depression during the holidays

You might be asking yourself, Why do I feel so bad during holidays? Whether you’re familiar with holiday depression or this is the first time you’re really experiencing these emotions, there are a few signs to look for that signal something bigger than normal winter blues:

If any of these apply to you, you may want to make an appointment with a primary care provider or mental health professional who can help you address some of the symptoms you’re experiencing. And if your safety is at risk or you feel in danger, you can contact the 24/7 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline through phone, chat or text, go to the hospital or call your local 911 hotline and your doctor right away to get the help you need.

How to deal with holiday depression

As daunting as this all may feel, you’re not alone in those feelings. There are ways to cope and find support and emotional stability to get you through this time of year.

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Remember a loved one

Finding a way to acknowledge a lost loved one at your holiday get-together can be a positive experience.

“Holidays can be more challenging when the loss isn’t talked about because it can make that absence seem even stronger,” Dr. Potter says. Sharing memories or a toast to the departed might be a bittersweet moment but one that can ultimately help make your holiday a richer experience.

Set boundaries

Difficult relationships are tested during the holidays, especially when it comes to families, but there are ways you can prepare. You shouldn’t be made to feel bad during the holidays.

“It’s OK to decline an invitation or to leave an event early,” Dr. Potter reassures. “Setting those boundaries is important, just be upfront that it’s important to you to attend but that you’ll be leaving before the end.”

And if you’re still not comfortable, you can always say no.

“You can’t make everyone happy so just do the best you can,” she continues. “If you’re honest and open, it’s easier to get through these difficult events feeling like you’ve done your best and you’re more likely to get some enjoyment out of them.”

And if you’re feeling anxious about a large gathering, Dr. Potter advises spending time with those you have good relationships with and focusing more on intimate connections.

“Focus your attention on people you feel comfortable with. And maybe find an ally with whom you can share your feelings of anxiety. They can give you reassurance and help steer around difficult topics of conversation or an awkward interaction.”

Stay connected

Whether you’re estranged from your family, have to spend the holiday apart from them or don’t have much family, you still don’t have to be alone during the holidays.

“Family isn’t just about the one you’re born into, it’s also about the people you connect with,” emphasizes Dr. Potter. “Spend time with your chosen family, the people who bring you happiness and joy.”

And if you can’t be there in person, there are other ways to stay in touch.

“Whether it’s a phone call or video chat, there are ways you can stay connected,” she says. “Just remember, you aren’t obligated to have a perfect holiday and that doesn’t make you any less of a person or any less valuable to the people in your life.”

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Participate in charity work

And if you feel like you don’t have anyone to turn to, perhaps you can seek out new relationships or volunteer your time with people who need it the most.

“Doing some type of charity work or helping out in some way really helps connect with others and can go a long way to easing that loneliness,” says Dr. Potter.

Limit social media use

Social media can give us a skewed perspective on the lives of others and, consequently, our own lives at any time of year. But this is particularly true during the holidays when everyone is more apt to tap into their main character energy.

“Remember, what you’re seeing on social media is just a highlight reel of someone’s holiday,” warns Dr. Potter. “You don’t see the sweat and stress that went into it and you can’t make assumptions about their level of happiness.”

Cutting down on social media can help you cut down on your own stress.

“It can relieve you of feeling like you have to live up to something,” she adds. “Remind yourself that the holidays are about connecting, quality time and sharing joy with others and not just one ‘perfect’ photo.”

Seek support and help

Even if you take some or all of these steps, you may still experience stress, depression and anxiety. A great way to alleviate those feelings is by seeking support.

“If you have access to a therapist, be sure to discuss your feelings with them, especially at this time of year,” Dr. Potter suggests. “If you don’t have a therapist and think it might be a good idea, you should consider reaching out, too.”

But if you’re not sure about therapy, you can still find support in a trusted loved one.

“Talk to a close family member or friend about what you’re going through,” she says. “Talking these things through and sharing similar feelings can go a long way to helping you manage your own feelings when they overwhelm you.”

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