Managing Your Holiday Depression

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated October 23, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The holidays aren’t the most wonderful time of year for many people. Stress, pressure, financial strain, loneliness, difficult feelings, and even mental health conditions like depression or bipolar disorder can manifest during this time. 

If there’s a particular upcoming holiday event that feels stressful, it can help to stay present, set realistic expectations, plan ahead, and remind yourself that it won’t last forever (IE, “it’s just one day”). To plan ahead, you may talk with a friend and decide to meet up or call each other afterward, or you may set an intention to take a walk or spend time on another hobby that helps you de-stress and recenter yourself.

“Holiday Blues,” Or Depression?

What Depression Around The Holiday Season Can Look Like

Some people report feeling the “holiday blues” at this time of year, or trouble dealing with the effects of extra stress or being overwhelmed. This is different from experiencing symptoms of depression or a condition like major depressive disorder, which a trained mental health professional can identify.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—another form of depression—may also affect people at this time of year, especially in parts of the world where there’s limited sunlight in winter months. 

Major depressive disorder and SAD can have similar symptoms, some of which can be brought about, or exacerbated by, additional stressors common at this time of year. The “holiday blues” may manifest in some of these ways too, but those symptoms are typically less severe and shorter-lived than these forms of depression. 

Here are a few signs that may point to some form of depression

  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Sadness, hopelessness, or apathy
  • Significant changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • The inability to get joy from activities once enjoyed

Again, feeling low during the holidays is not the same as experiencing a mental health condition like depression or SAD. Regardless, a mental health professional can help you unpack and manage any difficult feelings you may be facing at this time of year. 

Possible Causes Of Depression Around The Holidays

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with an existing mental health condition report that the holidays make it worse. The stress or loneliness of this time of year can also trigger the onset of certain conditions, such as depression.

Whether you’re feeling the “holiday blues,” suspect you may have depression, or feel that your existing depression has worsened lately, there may be a few different elements of this season that are contributing.

  • Triggers: Those who had traumatic experiences during the holidays in the past may themselves be reliving or experiencing emotions associated with those times. Someone who has lost family relatives with whom they used to spend holidays may also face difficult emotions during this season.

  • Comparison: Thanks to movies, social media, and even picture-perfect holiday cards, this season can spark unrealistic expectations and make it hard to avoid comparing ourselves, and our lives, to those of others. When it appears that family and friends around you are having a joyous, perfect holiday season—regardless of how true that actually is—constantly comparing that to one's own reality can take a toll on one's mental health.

  • Isolation: The holidays can be especially difficult for those who lack family, community, or other social connections with whom to spend the season. Whether they’re estranged from or have lost loved ones, live far away from them and are unable to travel because of illness, finances, or physical disabilities, or are facing isolation for some other reason, being alone during the holidays can have a negative impact on a person's mental health as well.

  • Stress: This time of year is stressful for many people. A jam-packed schedule full of holiday activities, traveling or hosting guests, buying gifts, managing financial demands, dealing with family conflict, and other elements of the season can become overwhelming and lead to burnout. A lack of sleep and exercise or a poor diet due to busyness can have negative effects on one’s mental state, too. Stress can often exacerbate the symptoms of a mental disorder. Bipolar disorder, for example, can be triggered by stressful circumstances or situations. 

Tips For Managing Symptoms Of Depression During The Holidays

1.  Therapy For Depression

It’s important to note that seeking treatment involving a mental health professional is typically recommended if you suspect you may have a mental health condition like depression. A trained counselor can provide a listening ear to whom you can express how you’re feeling, and they can help you identify patterns as well as create strategies to manage symptoms of a mental health disorder like depression.

Bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety, substance abuse, and a number of other conditions can all include therapy as part of their treatment plan. 

Remember that it’s usually best to seek treatment in the way that feels most comfortable for you. If you’re interested in the availability of online therapy, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed therapist who you can meet with virtually. This mental health professional will be able to provide you with tips and resources to best navigate a stressful holiday season or a mental health condition like depression.

Since research suggests that online therapy can provide similar benefits to in-person sessions, some people find this to be a convenient option, and sometimes your health insurance will cover the expense. If you prefer in-person treatment, you can search for providers in your local area.

In addition to getting the professional support you deserve, the other tips on this list may help you navigate depression during the holiday season a bit more easily or healthfully.

2.   Boundaries

Setting boundaries with one’s family and friends may help you safeguard your mental health, especially during the holiday season. While you should generally take care not to socially isolate yourself when experiencing symptoms of depression, saying no to gatherings, parties, or travel that will make you uncomfortable or stressed may be helpful.

You might also set boundaries regarding what conversation topics you won’t engage on when spending time with family who you don’t see eye to eye with. You could even set financial limits on how much you’ll spend on gifts, if anything, or how far you’ll travel for holiday celebrations.

Remember that you have the right to do what’s best for you and your mental health at this time of year, even if that doesn’t meet the expectations of others.

3.   New Traditions

This tip is especially applicable to those who have traumatic memories of past holidays, or are coping with the loss of a loved one they used to spend holidays with. While honoring traditions may help some who are grieving, creating entirely new ones may be the right approach for others.

Participating in a Friendsgiving dinner with your chosen family rather than your biological family is one example of how you could do this. Convincing your family to do a biscuit exchange or secret santa instead of all buying gifts for each other is another idea.

Think about the parts of the holiday that you don’t like or that trigger difficult feelings or memories for you, and then try brainstorming alternatives that may help you form new associations.

4.   Healthy Habits

Sleeping enough, eating a balanced diet, and exercising can be more difficult for people who are experiencing depression, but research shows that they can all be beneficial for mental health and managing depression.

Several studies have identified a link between a healthy diet and a lower risk of developing symptoms of depression, and exercise has even been shown toalleviate symptoms of depression.

If you find that your depression symptoms make it more challenging to practice self-care in these ways, a therapist may be able to help you find more creative strategies. It could also help to find a friend you can take regular walks with, for instance, or you could take up meditation to help improve your sleep quality.

Having healthy habits in place can also help you avoid unhealthy coping strategies such as excessive drinking that can contribute to holiday depression. 

5.   Kindness With Yourself

The holidays are a difficult time for many people; you’re not alone. It can be a high-stress, high-pressure time of year full of expectations, over commercialization, and even conflict or tough emotions.

While movies, social media, and even the news may make you feel like you’re “doing it wrong” if you’re not experiencing a joyous, picture-perfect holiday, try to remind yourself that it’s okay to experience difficult feelings during the holiday season. It’s okay not to celebrate the way others do, or at all, and it’s okay to not enjoy this time of year.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to be patient and gentle with yourself. There’s no “right” way to experience the holidays, and it’s understandable to find them difficult, stressful, or sad. Focus on taking care of yourself and seeking the support you need to manage hard feelings or more serious mental health conditions such as depression during this time. 

Takeaway

The holidays are a difficult and fraught time for many. If you’re concerned that the sadness you’re feeling at this time of year may be indicative of depression, the tips on this list can help you take care of yourself and manage your symptoms of depression. If you feel you need support, mental health professionals are available to provide it.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideations, please call the 988 Suicide And Crisis Lifeline at 988.

If you or someone you know is or might be experiencing a substance use disorder of any kind, please contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

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