For people with depression, the holidays can be a challenging time. People with the illness “tend to have a negative view of themselves and their lives,” said Selena C. Snow, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating depression in Rockville, Md.
“If they have overly idealized beliefs about what the holidays should look like, the resulting discrepancy can be very difficult.”
They may feel inadequate or like their lives are lacking, she said. Receiving others’ holiday cards and family newsletters — where people share only their happy news — can contribute to these feelings and erroneous beliefs that others are doing much better, she said.
Plus, “when people are depressed they often withdraw and self-isolate and the emphasis on spending time with family and friends during the holiday season can be particularly difficult for them when they do not feel that they have many friends with whom they have maintained relationships.” This pertains to depression that is a part of clinical depression, seasonal affective disorder, or bipolar disorder.
But it also depends on your views of the holiday season. For instance, Ruth White, Ph.D, MPH, MSW, author of the book Preventing Bipolar Relapse, isn’t big on Christmas. “I usually just spend it alone with my daughter and sometimes with friends or family. Because I am not emotionally engaged with the holiday season, I don’t find it has an impact on my bipolar disorder.”
Therese Borchard, who writes the blog “Sanity Break,” enjoys the magic of the holidays but does end up feeling more stressed. “I have more on my to-do list, and the stress of that often starts to drag my mood down. There are also the family gatherings, and even the most functional and happy family is going to run into two personalities who can’t sit next to each other for a turkey dinner.”
For Borchard, self-care is key during the holidays. She continues to exercise regularly and prioritize sleep. She also reaches out to her online support group, and to others who might need support. “[H]elping someone who is in pain helps me.”
“I love the holidays. They help brighten the shortest days of the year where joy can seem as scarce as sunlight,” said Douglas Cootey, who pens the award-winning blog “A Splintered Mind.” But since his divorce several years ago, the holidays have been more difficult, because his kids aren’t with him the entire time.
“I find that sometimes I have to push myself to prepare for the holidays so that I can enjoy them when my children are with me. Otherwise, I might ignore the holidays and just work. When did I become such a Scrooge?!”
Cootey’s kids help him temper any humbug tendencies. “They need me to celebrate the holidays, and that forces me to overcome my depression for them. I also find that celebrating the holidays with my children helps me fake it until I make it. As stressful as this time of year can be, there are immediate upsides for all that good cheer. Here and there are tiny moments that are bright like sunshine, which make me glad I made the effort to get out and have fun with my girls.”
Whether the holidays are emotionally intense or extra hectic for you, these tips may help.
Keep up your routine.
Both Borchard and White stressed the importance of sticking to your routine. “You need structure and routine during the holidays more than ever,” Borchard said. For instance, keep eating nutrient-rich foods and getting restful sleep.
White suggested getting outside and getting in some physical activity. “No matter how cold or how snowy it is, a nice walk on a crisp winter day can keep depression at bay and gives you a sense of peace, calm and accomplishment (at getting exercise).”
Keep a mood journal.
“Writing down your exercise, diet, sleep and mood helps you become more responsible for it,” said Borchard, also author of the book Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes.
“Examine what aspects [of the holidays] are truly important and meaningful to you and prioritize accordingly,” Snow said. That helps you in simplifying the holidays and minimizing stress.
For instance, if spending time in the kitchen with your kids is important, consider decorating store-bought cookies rather than baking from scratch, she said. If spending time with your extended family is tough, consider cutting down the time of your visit (which you might tolerate better), she said.
Find reasons to celebrate.
“All year long depression pulls you down. Let the holidays give you a reason to be lifted up,” Cootey said. For instance, he suggested everything from decorating your home to listening to music to finding things to be joyous about.
Focus on the theme.
Similarly, Cootey suggested finding the theme of the holiday you observe and turning it into a coping strategy that works for you. For instance, Thanksgiving can help you focus on what you’re thankful for. Christmas can help you focus on giving and volunteering.
“I have found doing this has elevated my moods and filled me with greater purpose during the darkest days of the year.”
Instead of buying gifts – which spikes financial stress – give your loved ones the gift of time or service, White said. She buys one gift every year, which is for her daughter. “I don’t believe in the whole commercial aspect but see it more as a time to enjoy my loved ones.”
“There is so much sadness and loneliness out there,” Borchard said. “Despite all the gifts on your to-do list, stopping for a moment to talk to a lonely neighbor can boost your mood. Taking the time to write someone a holiday card from the heart can have surprise benefits.”
White agreed. “[F]inding a way to give back to the community … improves mood and takes the focus away from ourselves.”
Try an activity you enjoy.
Borchard suggested doing one holiday activitiy you enjoy, such as seeing the “Nutcracker” or the “Messiah” opera or going to a train exhibit. Also, “try to make it as magical as possible for kids: Elf on the Shelf, stockings, Advent calendars, etc.”
If the holidays are especially tough for you, reach out. Seek support. (For instance, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance offers in-person and online support groups for people with mood disorders, Snow said.)
Keep prioritizing self-care, focus on your values and engage in holiday activities you enjoy.