How to handle depression over the holidays

There’s a popular myth that depression spikes over the holidays, when that’s simply not true (most studies actually point to spring as being the peak for suicide rates). But there may be some truth to the fact that stress and anxiety can increase from Thanksgiving and through the holiday season, thanks to potentially higher grocery bills (turkeys and cranberries don’t come cheap), a growing Christmas list, and more family and work functions than one would rather attend. Find more information about holiday depression  here.

And for some, all that stress and anxiety could lead to  depression, especially if stress levels are consistently high throughout the year, no matter the season.

Abby, a 40-year-old mobile phone call center agent from the midwest, says she has “high stress on a good day in July.

“In my line of work, I get a lot of people coming at me, complaining about service or products, but it’s not really the service or product they’re complaining about -- when people are angry, it’s generally a symptom of something else happening in their lives. I’ve been in therapy long enough to know that.

“Still, it doesn’t make it easier when I’m at the receiving end of their distress,” she continues. “And because I have a history with  anxiety and depression, and I take a lot of things to heart, I absorb all that stuff from people. 

“Add that to the holidays -- usually our calls spike on Black Friday and it doesn’t really stop -- and I’m a mess at the end of the day.”

Abby goes on to explain that her stress doesn’t stop when she clocks out at the end of the day. She anticipates a challenging holiday season with family -- her parents are divorced and remarried (which results in having to choose one parent over the other for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas, she says), and she’s still single (which means her well-meaning but frustratingly nosy aunts will relentlessly question her on her life choices).

“I know they say the whole ‘depression rates go up during the holidays’ thing is a lie, but I don’t know… it sure feels like it to me. 

“I just feel like everything hits me. I’m stressed, I’m lonely, I’m annoyed, I’m financially stretched thin. It’s when I need help most, and when I feel the most lonely.”

If you’re struggling like Abby, here are some tips on how to help keep sadness at bay -- and make the holiday season a bit easier.

Make a plan. This sounds like a broad statement, and it is. We suggest making a plan for several areas: perhaps one for how to deal with engagements like family and work parties, one for self care, and one for financial concerns.

The idea of having to endure a family party where an uncle with strong political opinions is going to endlessly rant over the punch bowl could be overwhelming. Having to attend a Christmas party with colleagues you don’t really like too much can be stressful. Perhaps part of your plan could be to say no -- who says you have to attend everything, or even anything? But if you’re obligated to go, part of your plan could be to have an exit strategy. Let people know if you have another event to attend, and make a quiet departure. 

During the holidays, many people tend to think of others first, forgetting their own needs. To ensure you’re participating in self-care practices, think of three things you love to do that make you happy. It could be sitting on your couch binge watching Hallmark holiday movies. It could be going to the gym. It could be spending time with your best friend. Whatever it is that makes you feel good, do that! 

A budget is handy all year, but it’s especially beneficial during the holidays. If this is a scary time of year for you because of the extra expenses, here are some things you can do: set a spending limit for each person on your list, give the gift of time to your closest, more cherished friends or family members, or create something at home, like a batch of your most loved cookies. 

Get enough sleep. Some of us who battle depression get too much sleep and never feel rested, while others battle insomnia (so definitely never feel rested). Hypersomnia and insomnia are equally draining, because we feel like we just don’t have the energy we need to get through the day -- which adds to our stress and frustration. 

If you have a hard time falling asleep, try a few different methods, including installing blackout curtains, turning on meditative music (or even ASMR videos you can find on YouTube, which some people swear by), or spraying a calming lavender scent on your pillow. If you get too much sleep, set a specific time you’re going to bed and set an alarm for the morning. Do your best to occupy your time during the day so you’re not tempted to crash on a couch for those extra (and possibly unnecessary) zzzs.

If sleep problems are overwhelming you, and these tips are of no help, you can also visit a sleep specialist who can dive deeper into your concerns and assist you toward getting better quality rest. 

Avoid family conflict. This is a big one! Some of us are lucky enough to love and accept every single one of our family members, but some of us have that aggravating aunt or obnoxious cousin we’d rather not see if we could help it. 

When confronted with a family member who’s less than pleasant, have a rehearsed response ready. Try saying things like, “I’d rather not talk about that here. Hey, have you tried the stuffing?” or “Let’s agree to disagree. I respect that you have your opinion; please respect that I have mine.”

Finally, distance yourself from said family member, and surround yourself with those who are more jovial and easier to be around.  Here are more ways to decrease holiday stressors.

Allow yourself to grieve. If this is your first holiday without someone you love, allow yourself to grieve them -- but don’t forget that you’re still here, and so are other people who you love and who love you.

Grieving is natural, and shouldn’t be dismissed or minimized. Don’t feel guilty if you’re not yet ready to feel 100%, even if your loved one has been gone for a while. You may feel angry at your loved one, or you might feel inconsolably sad. No matter what you’re feeling, allow yourself to feel it, and know that this is all part of your healing process.

Exercise and get enough light. The days are shorter this time of year, and some of us are lucky to see sunlight past 5 p.m.! If you know you’re affected by decreased exposure to sun, consider investing in a lamp that mimics sunlight. Set it up in your office or your bedroom, somewhere you can be in front of it for at least 30 minutes a day. It’s also a great idea to keep up with exercise -- it’s amazing what a half hour of brisk walking or cardio can do for a person’s mood and stress levels. 

If you are struggling to stay sober during the holiday season, find tips  here.

While these tips are designed to help you get through the holiday season, we know that sometimes it goes much deeper than what we’ve mentioned here. If you’re struggling with sadness this holiday, we urge you to visit and make an appointment with a compassionate, licensed  therapist today. 


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