For many parts of the country, November and December represent the toughest season of the year: the holidays.
While the holidays are typically painted in commercials as a time of joy, gathering, and happiness, for a lot of people the holidays are quite the opposite. Many people experience significant periods of sadness and loneliness during this time of year, and reports of anxiety and depression are likely to rise.
And it’s not limited to people who “hate” the holidays. Even those who generally like the holidays and look forward to them year after year say that they, too, are exceedingly stressed during this time.
“It’s been a tough couple of years, financially,” says Rae, a small shop owner who opened her plant boutique in 2019. “We were closed on and off for the better part of two years, either from mandates or lack of staff or illness, and it’s been taking me a lot longer to get back on my feet.
“My stress this year is that there are bills, there are people to pay, and inflation – don’t even get me started,” she continues. “And then there are gifts. Don’t get me wrong, my family is so understanding and if I told them all I just couldn’t pull it off this year, no one would say a thing.
“But gifts are representative of my gratitude, and I just can’t not give. So what that means for me is just a little more stress, a little more staying up at night because I’m trying to play Tetris with my funds.”
For David, who has a history of depression, the holidays can be a trigger.
“I’ve been able to manage my depression for years, but yeah, sometimes it hits without much warning,” he says. “My grandma turns 97 this year and I know we don’t have years and years left, so when I see her during the holidays I am so happy, but at the same time I am so sad because I know this isn’t going to be forever. That really hurts.”
During the holidays, some people may begin to experience signs of depression, like irritable moods, tension, worry, guilt, or general anxiety. Some lose pleasure in what they usually love to do. Others experience changes in their sleep patterns and their appetite. Others may not be able to concentrate, are more fatigued than usual, or may have a hard time concentrating or remembering things.
Sometimes, people mistake holiday depression for seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. The difference, however, is that that holiday depression, even though challenging, is usually mild and only lasts between November and December, typically lifting after New Year’s Day or week. SAD, on the other hand, lasts for about 40% of the year for a lot of people (especially those who live in four-season areas, where it gets darker earlier and the sun rises later for a good chunk of the year). SAD can be much more severe than holiday depression. In worst case scenarios, it can be debilitating. (If you are experiencing what you thought might have been holiday depression, but the symptoms just aren’t lifting, please seek the advice or assistance of a medical or mental health professional.)
So what exactly causes holiday depression?
Well, it’s different for everyone, but for some, like Rae, it’s financial stress. For others, it’s that there’s so much to do that they’re not sleeping as much as they should, or they’re overconsuming food and drink. For others, it’s being apart from their loved ones, perhaps because they live on the other side of the country and just can’t afford to fly or drive home, or they’re deployed, or other circumstances are just preventing a gathering this time of year. Holiday stress can be caused by anything, and depression is typically from ruminating over what’s happened already, the loss of things or people, or the guilt over past circumstances, while anxiety is caused by thinking about the possible negative outcomes of the holiday.
But there’s a way to cope. Of course, talking with a professional is always a wonderful way to manage any kind of stress, but at home, there are things you can still do.
Make sure, as much as possible, that you spend time with people. It doesn’t have to be a big, happy family gathering – it can be having coffee with a friend. It can be making every effort to make new friends if you don’t have a social circle.
Exercise every moment you can, especially if you find yourself consuming a lot of extra food and sitting on many, many comfy couches! When you’re stressed, frustrated, or sad, exercise is a great way to reduce those feelings.
Find time for you. If you’re the kind of person who says yes to everything, make sure you’re saying yes to you too. Indulge in some self-care; even 20 to 30 minutes of time that’s spent doing only what you love can make a huge different to your stress and sadness levels.