How To Cope With Holiday Stress and Depression

An expert offers advice on managing the holiday blues
A family of five sits down for a holiday meal with a Christmas tree in the background.

While many of us find the holidays a time of joy and celebration, others experience a completely different set of emotions. It can be a time of year rife with stress, sadness, depression and loneliness.

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But it doesn’t have to be this way. Psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD, outlines the causes of this holiday depression, some of the signs you’re experiencing it, even if you don’t realize it, and how to manage these tough times.

Causes of holiday depression

While many see the holiday season as a time for reflection, joy and spending time with family, it can also be a time of stress and sadness for others. Some of the reasons for that, according to Dr. Potter, include:

  • Stressful schedules. “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,” says 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 notes.
  • 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.
  • 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 and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) rise at the same time, sometimes impacting the holiday experience.

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

What symptoms and signs should I look for?

Whether you’re familiar with holiday stress and depression or this is the first time you’re really experiencing these emotions, there are a few signs to look for. “Some stress is normal around the holidays,” says Dr. Potter, “but there’s a difference between normal stress symptoms and ones that indicate a significant anxiety or depressive disorder.”

Dr. Potter says these are four main symptoms that may signal something bigger than normal stress.

  • Feeling depressed and hopeless for more days than not.
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy.
  • Constantly feeling anxious, nervous or on edge more days than not.
  • Trouble sleeping over an extended time.

In addition to these, Dr. Potter urges anyone experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide to contact the 24/7 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline through phone, chat or text. It is a free resource that connects people in crisis to a local counselor. If you feel you’re in immediate danger, go to the hospital or call 911 and your doctor immediately.

How to manage stress and depression during the holidays

As daunting as this all may feel, there are ways to cope and find support and emotional stability to get you through a tough time of year.

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Remembering a loved one

Dr. Potter says that 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,” she 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.

Setting boundaries

Difficult relationships are tested during the holidays, especially when it comes to families, but there are ways you can prepare. “It’s okay to decline an invitation or to leave an event early,” Dr. Potter says. “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.”

“It’s okay to say no to attending an event you don’t feel comfortable with,” she adds. “You can’t make everyone happy so just do the best you can. 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.”

If you’re feeling anxious about a large gathering, Dr. Potter advises spending time with those you have good relationships with. “Focus your attention on people you feel comfortable with. And maybe find an ally with whom you can share your feelings of anxiety,” she suggests. “They can give you reassurance and help steer around difficult topics of conversation or an awkward interaction.”

Staying 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. Says Dr. Potter, “Family isn’t just about the one you’re born into, it’s also about the people you connect with. 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,” Dr. Potter notes.

“Just remember,” she adds, “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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Participating in charity work

The holidays are time with a multitude of volunteering opportunities, notes Dr. Potter. “Doing some type of charity work or helping out in some way really helps connect with others and can do go a long way to easing that loneliness.”

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

She also says that 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. Remind yourself that the holidays are about connecting, quality time and sharing joy with others and not just one ‘perfect’ photo.”

Seeking 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 says. “If you don’t have a therapist and think it might be a good idea, you should consider reaching out, too.”

If you’re not sure about therapy, though, 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.”

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