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Holiday Depression is Real and It’s Okay to be Sad

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

This is the time of year when everyone is saying “Happy Holidays,” but many of us deal with depression during the holidays.

There is so much pressure to feel gratitude, joy, and goodwill, and for those of us who don’t, it can add to feelings of isolation.

There are many reasons why a person’s depression would be worse during the holidays, and if you feel that way, you are not alone!

What are some things that can cause holiday depression? What do you do when just aren’t feeling the emotions everyone wants you to feel during the holiday season?

Common reasons for holiday depression

As a child, my mother was usually missing from our Christmas celebrations. She had been in jail and then placed in the witness protection program when I was in the 8th grade.

My grandma tried her best to make the holiday a happy time for us, but ultimately, I would feel sad because my mom wasn’t there.

This led to my grandma becoming angry that I didn’t appreciate the things she tried to do for me. This inevitably led to some kind of fight or drama on Christmas Day.

Then, twenty years ago, almost to the day, my mother was killed in a car accident. That Christmas would have been the first Christmas I had spent with her in years as I had just turned 18 and moved in with her.

There are many reasons why people might feel gloomy around the holidays. Here are just a few:

  • Physical separation from loved ones (for any reason other than death)
  • Grief over the death of a loved one
  • Family histories of abuse and feeling the need to reach out and spend time with people you shouldn’t
  • Anxiety

If you are depressed for any reason during the holiday, the first thing to realize is that there is not anything wrong with you. It is not fair to expect yourself to forget the realities of your life and suddenly become a Christmas elf.

What can you do to cope with depression during the holidays?

There are a few things that can help you handle depression during the holidays. First, it is important to understand what depression is.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.”

While depression is treatable, it won’t suddenly vanish because it is time to eat turkey and decorate the Christmas tree. What will help is focusing on three areas of your life: support, self-care, and living in the moment.

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We all need support. Self-care is essential to our mental health. Living in the moment is a big help when living with anxiety.

We really should focus on these things year-round, but the holidays actually offer us unique opportunities to do specific things that fit into each category.

Finding support for holiday depression

Maybe you aren’t talking about your feelings with the people closest to you because they are dealing with some of the same things you are, like the recent loss of a loved one.

Maybe you don’t feel like talking to the people around you because they all seem to have drunk the Christmas Kool-Aid, and are just too damn cheerful to deal with your troubles.

It is normal to want to withdraw when you are feeling depressed, but what you really need is to connect with others. Let the people closest to you know how you are feeling.

If you have recently lost someone, and feel like the people around you can’t understand, then find a grief support group.

No one’s experience is going to be exactly what yours is, but this group will fundamentally understand what you are going through.

We can also accept support from others, which is hard for many of us to do, but it really will help. If you are someone who is used to doing things for themselves without ever asking for help, this is going to feel about as impossible as Santa fitting down a chimney.

However, letting people in is one of the best things you can do. Did your neighbor offer to bring you some Thanksgiving dinner because she knows you aren’t going anywhere this year? Take her up on it. It doesn’t make you weak to accept help and might help you feel less lonely.

Self-care is essential to fight holiday depression

Accepting support is one way to help fight depression, but another important thing you can do is take care of yourself. This includes things like getting enough sleep and rest, eating healthy foods, and getting some exercise.

Now, when you are depressed, doing these things might seem more impossible than finding the North Pole. You might be in a place where you can barely get out of the bed to shower, and the thought of exercising seems ridiculous. Rudolph showing up on your roof seems more likely to happen.

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The key here is to take tiny baby steps. Even the most minuscule thing can make the world of difference. If you read that and thought, exercise means going to the gym for an hour and wanted to curse me out, take a deep breath first.

If you haven’t gotten out of the house in days, exercise can be walking out the door, down to the corner, and coming right back.

Hell, if you can’t make it to the corner today, make it to the end of the driveway. Tomorrow, the corner can be the goal.

The point is that these tips always seem so overwhelming because we put expectations on them that we know are impossible right now, and then feel even worse when we can’t meet those.

If self-care for you means taking a shower for the first time this week then do that. It doesn’t have to be a shower where you wash your hair, do a conditioning treatment, and shave your entire body. That can feel like a daunting task when you aren’t depressed.

If you can manage to drag your clothes off and get in the water, then you won today. Tomorrow maybe use the body wash. What counts is what you do today, no matter how small it may seem.

Living in the moment can help calm holiday anxiety

Find some support to help you through right now. Do whatever self-care you feel you can at this moment. These are all examples of living in the moment. Don’t worry about what next week looks like. There are a few holiday-specific ways you can live in the moment too!

Don’t compare this holiday to the ones that came before it. If last year was a totally different holiday for you, it is unrealistic to expect this one to live up to the ghost of Christmas Past. Do what you can to make this holiday bearable for you.

Let go of the expectations you have for the holiday. It doesn’t matter if the holiday isn’t picture perfect this year. What matters is that you make it through. You do that however you need to.

Now, these two pieces of advice for living in the moment might seem to go against one another, but that’s because you do whichever one works for you at this moment.

Don’t feel like going to a holiday gathering this year? Then don’t! Tell everyone you love them, but you just don’t feel up to it right now. Or go through the motions, and “fake it until you make it.” This doesn’t mean that you need to suppress your emotions and feelings, because that is not helpful.

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But if putting up a tree with no ornaments makes you feel a flicker of the holiday spirit then do it. If you want to throw the ornaments on it, then go ahead.

You don’t have to feel the usual holiday cheer that you normally do. But if you can do it, and feel something then go ahead. If you don’t have it in you, that’s ok too. Pick whichever makes you feel even a tiny bit better.

There is no magic answer to dealing with holiday depression

There is no right answer to how you cope with these tough times. If some of these tips work for you that is great. If they don’t that is ok, too! It is also ok to realize that you might need more help than these tips you can do yourself.

If you need to find a therapist or a psychiatrist there is no shame in that. Mental health professionals are well equipped to help you get through the unjoyful holidays. There is also one other thing that might help you feel better if you feel up to it.

Try and create some holiday magic for someone else. If it is too hard to spend the holidays alone, but you don’t want to go to a gathering filled with people wearing Christmas sweaters and talking about how great life is, try something different. Volunteer to help out at the local homeless shelter on Christmas Day.

If that is too much going out and dealing with people, then maybe grab a child’s name off the angel tree and buy them presents.

Doing things like this for other people often makes us feel better, and knowing that you made a little magic for someone else this holiday, might be just the thing you need.

Do you have any other tips on how to handle holiday depression? You can share your thoughts with us in the comment section below. I hope you have the best holiday you can this year, and just know that whatever that looks like, it is good enough. Holiday depression is real, and it’s okay to do what you need to in order to make it through.

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