Ah, holidays with family. For some, it stirs up emotions of warmth, joy, love and bottomless cups of warm drinks and cookies. TV spots and magazine covers paint a picture of laughing family members, hovering by a fire and sharing holiday songs while passing around a plate of cookies and treats.
But this idyllic picture isn’t the same for everyone; for many, the holidays are a time of great stress, pressure, and anxiety, a source of absolute apprehension and angst. Some are worried about spending too much time (or any) time with family they don’t particularly enjoy; others hear holiday hymns and are reminded of their growing loneliness.
Holiday depression, or holiday sadness, is quite real. Holiday depression begins as autumn leaves start falling throughout the country, brought on by the first hints of Thanksgiving and often carrying through until New Year’s Day.
There isn’t a wealth of research and statistics on holiday depression, but a brighter light is being cast on this phenomenon, which can piggyback on seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It’s been reported that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, more people feel an increased amount of anxiety, depression and stress than any other period throughout the year. Even those who love the holidays – those who turn their Christmas music on the day after Halloween, those who are thrilled to spend an afternoon wrapping gifts and whipping up the eggnog – are susceptible to feeling fatigued, irritated, overwhelmed and sad.
While experts have reported that suicide rates actually are lower during the holidays than during the spring, studies have shown that there’s a spike in depression, anxiety, mood changes, sleep problems and social problems during the holidays. Thanksgiving depression is the first to hit, followed by depression connected to Christmas, Hanukkah or other religious holidays in December, and finally, New Year’s depression.
Katie’s holiday depression: Stress and anxiety
Katie, a 28-year-old sales associate, loves the holidays. “I heard once that in the Philippines, they start celebrating in September,” she says with a laugh. “I would love that! I’d be putting up my tree in August if they let me.”
But Katie’s job at a department store gets stressful – it’s around Thanksgiving that shoppers start coming in, eager to start their holiday shopping. While most people, Katie says, are friendly, there’s an increase in the number of grumpy, grouchy and disrespectful shoppers who walk through the store’s doors.
“It’s not the shoppers that are the reason for my holiday depression,” admits Katie, “but they do trigger it, I think. I start getting really nervous and hot. Sometimes they’re so mean they make me feel like throwing up at the cash register. I try to think of life from their perspective, so that I can make sense of why they’re so mad or upset or whatever, but all that does is bring up all these other emotions for me, and I get worse.
“I think of all the activities and tasks I have to do. I think of all the social functions and family gatherings I have to go to. And then I start thinking about how I work in a mall and I won’t even have time to do my own shopping unless I go during break, and then I think of the fact I can’t help my mom with the turkey again. And every year, my shopping list gets bigger, but my paycheque isn’t.
“And then I start thinking about what Thanksgiving dinner is going to be like. Like, I love my Uncle Ron, but if Aunt Helen asks me one more time when I’m going to bring a guy home or I’ve been thinking about how much harder it’s going to be to find someone and get married after 35, I’m going to blow.
“I love the holidays, I really do. But everyone else’s stress becomes my stress, and I end up feeling incapable of handling my own stuff because it’s all around me 40, 50 hours a week. It’s very demanding. Sometimes I don’t even realize how much it’s hitting me until I get home and I’m alone with my thoughts and it comes down on me like a bag of bricks.”
Ally’s holiday depression: Being away from her partner
Ally, 34, is facing another holiday without her husband, a service member deployed overseas. Ally doesn’t consider herself depressed at any other time throughout the year, but considers holiday depression very real for her.
“I can feel the panic starting,” she says. “It’s another Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s when I’m going to be in photos by myself. I’m going to hear everyone’s good news or sad news and the person I want to share it with the most isn’t going to be there.
“Sometimes I catch myself feeling sorry for myself and I think, ‘Get it together.’ I’m lucky, I guess… I don’t have kids. I know other women whose husbands are out there and they have to pull it together for their little ones. It’s heartbreaking.
“One of my girlfriends, whose husband is also away, says her mom used to suggest to her to not look at it as the holiday season. It helps to take it one day at a time, so it’s just one party today. Nothing tomorrow. Oh, it’s Thanksgiving? Okay. I’m giving myself four hours to spend time with family, get through the family photos, be sympathetic to those who don’t know how to talk to me because they feel so bad for me, and then head home.
“It’s like anything else that’s too big to swallow whole, I guess. One day at a time. One bite at a time. It doesn’t take the pain away entirely, but it helps.
I can make a suggestion to anyone who has a loved one currently deployed. Stay glued to your phone if he or she can call. Remember that you don’t have to physically be together to do things together. If you’re spiritual, pray together, even if you’re worlds apart. Read the same book and share your thoughts on that, or go the old fashioned route and write a beautiful handwritten love letter. These help with your connection, and actually does make everything easier.”
Dominic’s holiday depression: Holidays with family
Dominic, 45, is a self-described mama’s boy. The youngest of four brothers and three sisters, all of whom are married, he and his wife travel home for the holidays to spend time with his large Italian clan.
But unlike the happy, joyful Italian families on movie screens, he says, his family is more dysfunctional than any other he knows. Holidays with the family trigger short-term depression for Dominic.
“I think it was after college I started noticing that the holidays weren’t exactly what you’d consider happy,” says Dominic. “A lot of yelling. Swearing. There’s fighting over the food – the pasta’s too soggy, too tangy, too whatever. The chicken’s not right. Uncle Joe’s in jail again, and it must be somebody else’s fault.
“I get heat for being the baby – to anyone else but my mother, I’m not good enough, or I’m spoiled, or I got away with everything. It feels like getting verbally beaten up for a week straight.
“Because we’re such a huge family – everyone’s married and there are only two of us without kids – there’s always bound to be some kind of drama. Someone’s fighting or may be getting divorced or someone’s someone has passed away. There’s been drug use in the family. I have a brother who’s been divorced three times. Half of us don’t talk all year and then we collide at Christmas.
“Talk about holiday depression. It’s almost impossible to feel any kind of joy or love or gratitude when everyone’s yelling over everybody else. It causes strain in my marriage. It makes me second guess everything I do. After Christmas, it takes me a good month before I start to feel normal again, and not have this huge lump in the pit of my stomach.”
Holiday depression: What are the stressors?
The American Psychological Association took a survey of what people across the United States felt about or during the holidays. What they found was that most people felt positive holiday emotions often or sometimes, but also felt the following:
38% of people surveyed claimed that their stress levels increase during the holidays. Here’s why:
Lack of time
Lack of money
Commercialism or hype
Pressure of giving or getting gifts
Staying on a diet
Increasing credit card debt
Like Katie, 56% of respondents said that their stress actually increased at work; only 29% said that their stress levels increased at home.
If I’m experiencing holiday sadness, what can I do?
There is a marked difference between holiday sadness or holiday depression and more severe forms of depression. If after the holidays end and you are still experiencing symptoms of depression, seek a mental health professional for guidance and longer-term treatment.
If you are experiencing holiday depression – whether it’s Thanksgiving depression or New Year’s depression – it’s helpful to remember that it’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed by everything that happens during the holidays. We’re pressured by time, financial responsibilities, family expectations. All of this can leave you feeling sad, lonely, frustrated and fatigued.
Experiencing holiday sadness is difficult, but it can be overcome. Managing depression that comes with the season means you will need to find ways to manage your stressors – whether that’s spending time with family members who test you, or rearranging your budget so you can cross off everyone on your Christmas list without being unable to meet your own needs.
Here are some of the things you can do to help manage your holiday depression:
1. Don’t feel pressured to be “happy” just because it’s the holidays. When someone says, “Happy Holidays!” to you, you don’t need to take it literally. Accept their greetings and remember that no one is forcing you into a set of emotions you don’t authentically feel.
2. Try to find ways to reduce or eliminate the extra demands the holidays bring upon you. If you’ve been invited to three or more parties, don’t feel obliged to go to all of them, or if you have to, set a timer for yourself and a ready excuse why you have to duck out earlier than the rest. If your family is quite large, and you just can’t manage to buy a gift for everyone, chat with a couple of relatives and see if you can’t do some kind of Secret Santa, so you’ll only need to buy for one person instead of the whole clan. Financial difficulties or not, many people would appreciate a reduction in their Christmas list!
3. See a therapist once a week to help you manage the stressors you are having a tough time dealing with on your own.
4. Set expectations for yourself during the holidays and don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself in a depressed mood when everyone else seems to be extra cheerful.
5. Be cognizant of your diet. Overeating to cover up stress or under-eating to make sure you’re not putting on stress weight is not healthy, not just physically but also emotionally. Try to stick to three square meals a day and don’t let yourself go either hungry or to the point where you have to undo that button.
6. Reach out to loved ones and let them know if and when you’re having a hard time. Keep a solid support system around you to help you deal with the holidays. It’s not the number of people who support you that’s important – it’s the quality. With their assistance, care and understanding, you’ll get through the season, and begin to feel better as the lights are taken down and the new year begins.
If you’re experiencing holiday sadness or holiday depression, visit www.hopetherapyandwellness.com for and book an appointment.