Managing Your Holiday Depression

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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The holidays are not the most wonderful time of year for many people. Stress, pressure, financial strain, loneliness, difficult memories, and even mental health conditions like depression can manifest during this time. Here, we’ll take a closer look at some of the emotional and mental health difficulties people may experience during the holidays and have tips for managing and addressing them.

“Holiday blues” or depression?

What holiday depression can look like

Some people report feeling the “holiday blues” at this time of year or having trouble managing the effects of extra stress or overwhelm. These temporary feelings are different from experiencing symptoms of a clinical condition like major depressive disorder, which only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—another form of depression—may also affect people at this time of year. SAD is particularly common in parts of the world where there’s limited sunlight in winter months, which is why light therapy is sometimes recommended for this condition.

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 forms of clinical depression.

Here are a few signs that may point to some form of depression, whether it starts as “holiday depression” or occurs at any other time of year: 

  • Withdrawal from social interactions
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Sadness, hopelessness, or apathy
  • Significant changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • The inability to take pleasure in 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 or other mental illness around the holidays

The stress or loneliness of this time of year has the potential to exacerbate an existing mental health condition or 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, it may be due to any of several different aspects of this season, such as:

Difficult memories

Those who had traumatic experiences during the holidays in the past may relive memories or emotions associated with those times each year. Someone who has lost a loved one with whom they used to spend holidays may also face difficult feelings during this season.

Comparison

Thanks to movies, social media, and even picture-perfect holiday cards, this season can involve 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 personal 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 social isolation for some other reason, being alone during the holidays can have a negative impact on a person's mental health.

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 handling other elements of the season can become overwhelming and may even lead to burnout. A lack of sleep, exercise, and sufficient nutrition as a result of this busyness can have negative effects on one’s mental state, too. Plus, stress can often exacerbate the symptoms of existing mental health disorders. Symptoms of bipolar disorder, for example, can be triggered by stressful circumstances or situations. 

Tips for managing mental health and symptoms of depression during the holidays

If you’re experiencing signs of a mental health condition or would simply like support in managing stress at any time of year, it’s recommended that you meet with a therapist. We’ll discuss this in greater detail below. Then, we’ll discuss other strategies that may also help you manage increased stress or worsened depression during the holidays.

1. Meet with a therapist

It’s important to note that seeking treatment from a mental health professional is typically recommended if you suspect you may have a mental health condition like depression. Therapy is also usually one of the key components of treatment for a number of other conditions, from bipolar disorder to anxiety disorders to substance use disorders. A trained therapist can provide a safe space where you can express how you’re feeling, and they can help you create strategies to manage your symptoms as needed and connect you with additional resources if desired.

Remember that it’s usually best to seek treatment in the way that feels most comfortable for you. If online therapy would be more convenient for you than in-person sessions, you might consider exploring a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. It can match you with a licensed therapist who you can meet with remotely from the comfort of home. Since research suggests that online therapy may provide similar benefits to in-person sessions, some people find this to be a more convenient option. If you prefer in-person treatment, you can search for providers in your local area instead.

2. Set healthy boundaries

Setting boundaries with 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, since this can lead to additional negative mental health outcomes, saying no to or putting limits on social 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, even if that doesn’t align with “tradition” or meet the expectations of others.

3. Embrace 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 might do this. Convincing your family to do a biscuit exchange or Secret Santa instead of buying gifts for each other is another idea for a simple way to mix up traditions that may be painful or stressful.

Think about the parts of the holidays 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. Keep up with healthy habits

Sleeping enough, eating nutritious foods, and exercising can be more difficult for people who are experiencing depression, but research suggests that they can all be beneficial for managing symptoms. For instance, several peer-reviewed studies suggest a link between regular consumption of nutritious foods and a lower risk of developing symptoms of depression. Similarly, research indicates that exercise may help alleviate symptoms of depression.

If you find that 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 link up with a partner or family members to prep some nourishing meals.

5. Practice self-compassion

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 season, try to remind yourself that it’s okay to experience difficult feelings during this time. It’s okay to not 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 this time of year filled with moments or thoughts that are difficult, stressful, or sad. Focus on taking care of yourself and seeking the support you may need to manage tough emotions or mental health conditions like 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, bipolar disorder, or another condition, the tips on this list may help you take care of yourself and manage your symptoms as you pursue professional care as well.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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