A Blue Christmas: Coping with Stress and Depression During the Holiday Season

People are decking the halls, singing carols, and splurging on gifts.  But for many of us, the holidays may not be so merry.  Difficult or traumatic memories, seasonal mood disorders, or a sense of loneliness and isolation are just some of the trying experiences the holiday season can trigger.  Holidays frequently bring about increased stress in their own right as we organize travel plans, budget for gifts, and interact with family.  Moreover, the holiday season tends to be charged with expectation that can create self-judgement and greater disappointment when we feel we’re not living up to the holiday cheer standard.  Regardless of the reason, the holidays have the potential to be the hardest time of the year for many.  However, with a little extra energy and intention, we can help ourselves and our loved ones successfully cope with the challenges the holidays bring in a way that brings us closer to ourselves and one another.    

It’s Okay to not be Okay

The expectation that the holidays be a holly, jolly time can actually make us feel worse for feeling bad.  We look around and think, “Is there something wrong with me?  Why aren’t I cozily lying next to the fire with a loved one and a cup of hot chocolate laughing heartily at the thrill of the season?”.  The perception that everyone else is filled with joy, relishing their time with family, and enthusiastically celebrating life can cause us to feel isolated.  It’s important to remember that the images we see in social media and on TV are a highly curated form of reality.  If you’re going through a hard time this holiday season, it may be helpful to think critically about the kind of media you want to consume during this time.  Check in with yourself by noticing your general mood and thought processes both before and after consuming content.  If a certain activity is contributing to a negative mood state, it may be helpful to take a break from that platform during this difficult season.  

Above all, give yourself (or your friend) permission to not be okay.  Many, many people experience sadness, anxiety, loneliness, and depression during the holiday season.  Being honest with yourself and others about this experience gives others permission to share these experiences as well.  No one person is okay all of the time, and our mood cannot be dictated by months of the year or days on a calendar.  Giving yourself space to process and learn from difficult emotions is valuable regardless of the season.  Trust that this experience will pass in time and do your best to provide space for it while it is present.  

Make the Holidays Your Own

Oftentimes negative, uncomfortable, or traumatic memories may be triggered by the holiday season and traditions around celebration.  Frequently we have come to inherent a holiday “script”, both from society and our family of origin.  However, breaking out of this mold and creating your own holiday traditions can help begin to carve out space for a new experience of the holiday season, separate from potentially difficult memories of the past.  Think about what brings you joy or what feels worthy of celebration during this time to you.  Consider if there is a part of the holiday season that really speaks to you such as gratitude, generosity, connection, or reflection.  How can you more fully integrate and express these aspects into your celebration of the holidays, possibly to the exclusion of other elements?  As you think about what brings joy for you, don’t be afraid to think outside of the box.  Maybe you need to start a yearly tradition of going to the beach during Christmas, eating a Chinese buffet for Thanksgiving, or doing a spring-cleaning of your house for New Years Eve.  If all else fails, remember that research shows that helping others is a powerful source of happiness and fulfillment.  Volunteering, donating, or contributing your time can be traditions that helps take your mind off your own troubles and connect with the world around you.  What’s most important is that your activities bring you joy and fulfillment this holiday season. 

Keep up the Self Care

With the holidays come gifts, travel, and booze-infused desserts.  The holidays are almost designed to throw us out of a normal routine.  While the holiday season can be a welcome reprieve from the tedium of everyday life, it can also cause us to get off track in many of the habits we’ve formed to best care for and support ourselves.  Being flexible with ourselves and expecting changes in our regular self-care plan can help prevent guilt and self-judgement brought on by too idealistic of expectations.  When circumstances change, so must we.  With all of the disruption the holidays can bring, it may be helpful to choose just one or two habits that are positive and helpful to focus on maintaining during the holiday upheaval. This could be taking regular walks, keeping up a journal, or just staying hydrated.  Keeping consistent with some of our self-care habits, without demanding perfection, will not only help us transition back to post-holiday life but also helps us to focus on listening to and taking care of ourselves throughout this season.  Remember you can always return to a more regimented or aspirational self-care plan when the holidays quiet down.  Give yourself permission to enjoy the holiday festivities when that feels right, but also give yourself permission to stick to bubbly water or stay home with a book if that’s what you need.  Listen to yourself, and you can’t go wrong.  

With that in mind, if you or a friend are struggling during this holiday season, don’t forget that all of our familiar methods of support and coping are still available.  Talk to a friend, talk to a therapist, check in with Kvell, and make time to mentally and emotionally process your experience.   Spring will be here before you know it.  

It maybe helpful to check out our article on Finding a Mental Health Profession and what to look for in a therapist – available on the Kvell app (beta testing is open!).


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