The holiday season can be a joyful and celebratory time of year, often associated with festive gatherings, family traditions, and time spent with loved ones. Yet amidst the holiday shopping, decorating, baking, and social gatherings, many find themselves stressed or depressed by increased expectations and disrupted routines.
Depression is the second most common mental health issue in the United States, second only to anxiety disorders. Women typically suffer from depression more often than men, but approximately 17.3M adults have been diagnosed with major depressive disorders. However, it is important to differentiate between seasonal affective disorder (SAD), your standard winter or holiday “blues”, and holiday depression – all of which have overlapping symptoms, and occur during the same time of year.
Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder where your mental health is generally normal throughout most of the year, but you experience depressive symptoms during the long and dark winter months. Winter blues is generally situational anxiety and/or depression, resulting in short-term feelings of fatigue, stress, irritation, and loneliness. However, holiday depression can be triggered by feelings of loneliness/isolation, the loss of a loved one/grief, financial strain, social anxiety, forced family functions, or unrealistic expectations, and can be dangerously misinterpreted as SAD or winter blues.
Where blues and depression part ways is that depression is neither situational nor short-term, and is more than just the feeling of sadness. It is a mental health disorder, characterized by a persistently depressed mood. It can result in a loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed, changes in appetite and sleeping patterns, feelings of worthlessness, difficulty concentrating, or suicidal thoughts. Holiday depression can evolve into major depression, so be sure to check in with yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Medication and talk therapies have a high success rate in treating depression, so if you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms for two weeks or more, it is recommended you seek a mental healthcare professional.
Regardless of the cause or the intensity of your unwanted feelings or poor mood, having an arsenal of healthy coping mechanisms can help you successfully maneuver through any month, but particularly through the holiday months.
Assess Your Relationships and Set Boundaries
The holidays can raise expectations to spend more time with family, and if there are issues within your family dynamic, depression and/or stress can bubble to the surface. Before agreeing to family functions, take a moment to assess your emotions surrounding different family members. Do these emotions feel helpful or hurtful? Don’t be afraid to limit your time spent with family members or to excuse yourself entirely from gatherings. You have a right to prioritize your mental health and wellbeing.
Keep expectations manageable and realistic
Don’t set yourself up for failure by placing unrealistic expectations on yourself and/or others. Whether it be shopping for presents, cooking for the family, or decorating your home – pace yourself, prioritize your to-do list, and if you still don’t get everything done – that’s ok! The goal is not perfection, but to enjoy the holiday season.
If it isn’t working – change it
We can place unnecessary stress upon ourselves by trying to uphold family traditions, even if those traditions are no longer practical. Remember, a tradition first becomes a tradition by occurring a single time, so don’t be afraid to start a new tradition, if old traditions are no longer serving you and your loved ones.
Ask For and Accept Help
Difficult feelings and uncomfortable thoughts do not disappear simply because it is the holiday season. And keeping those feelings inside can often make them worse. Let those close to you know how you are feeling, and feel free to remove the pressure from the conversation – you're not looking to be fixed, just heard. If you need help, either with processing your feelings or preparing a holiday feast – ask for it, and accept it.
Create a Coping Sheet
A coping sheet is a physical list of activities that consistently help boost your mood. Examples could be journaling, listening to music, positive self-talk/affirmations, meditating, watching your favorite movie, or simply Googling pictures of puppies. As long as the activity brings you joy, it belongs on your Coping Sheet.
Don’t Compare Today to Yesterday
It’s easy to get caught up in nostalgia during the holiday season – maybe when your children were little or when you yourself were little, the holidays felt brighter and more joyous. Allow each holiday to be the best it can be without comparing it to holidays of the past.
Get Enough Rest
Food, water, shelter, and sleep. If you wouldn’t go without the first three, then you shouldn’t go without sleep. Sleep is as vital to our physical and mental health as food and water, so make sure you maintain and prioritize good sleeping habits through the holiday season.
Be Mindful of What You Eat and Drink
The holiday season usually involves large meals paired with cocktails and sugary desserts – all of which can negatively impact your digestive system, and prevent you from feeling your best. It’s also easy to seek comfort in food when we’re dealing with emotional pain. That which we consume can directly impact how we feel, so don’t be afraid to indulge, but do so in moderation. And make sure you’re getting some nutritional food (leafy greens, good fats, fruits, and vegetables) alongside your indulgent treats.
Move Your Body
Exercising not only helps us physically, but it strengthens our mental health by boosting endorphins and improving our mood. A neighborhood walk after a holiday meal can give you some necessary time to yourself, help digestion, ease tension or anger you might be experiencing, and it can even help you sleep better that evening.
Connect With Your People
There are families and then there are chosen families. When we are feeling depressed or anxious, we can make matters worse by isolating ourselves from our loved ones. This may feel comforting at the moment, but it can be mentally harmful, and exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Remember, lots of people struggle with loneliness around the holidays, so be sure to reach out to your people, and let them know how you’re feeling. If family or friends aren’t options, then find other ways to connect either through volunteerism or with co-workers.
Essentially, the goal is to allow for the possibility of a joyous holiday season by prioritizing self-care – be mindful of what you need both emotionally and physically. Anticipate stress, and ensure you have the necessary tools to combat harmful self-talk and intrusive thoughts. And if you are struggling or feeling overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to reach out to a loved one or seek professional help. You have a responsibility to yourself to live your best life, and that includes during the holiday season.