Holiday depression is real...
Battling holiday depression.
As I am sitting here bobbing my head to holiday tunes, it really struck me that the holidays had been a terrible time for me for many, many years and holiday depression was a very real thing. I don’t think it matters what you celebrate, or if you celebrate anything at all at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. Maybe you celebrate a religious holiday, or maybe you just get together with family because people are off work and have the time to meet up.
When I was little, Christmas in Germany was a big thing. We had two weeks holidays from school. My dad always took vacation. We mostly celebrated Christmas Eve at home and then spent the days after Christmas in the mountains with my grandparents and all the rest of the family.
It was always a festive time. All the towns were festive with magical decorations and my mom went all out making the house look cozy and magical. We followed a lot of fun traditions with making advent wreaths, crafts, and doing lots of baking. My mom whips up an unbelievable 13 different kinds of German Christmas cookies every year!
Looking back, thoughts of Christmas always made me feel happy and I truly treasure those memories. It wasn’t about the presents, although there were always lots. Deep down, it was about the feeling of being loved and sharing that love with everyone. It was about spending time with family, having fun outside in the snow, eating great food together, and appreciating all the things we had to be thankful for.
Feeling unhappy during the holidays was just unacceptable. There was constant pressure to love the season and be cheerful and merry.
When holiday depression sets in
As I got older and depression grabbed a hold of me, the holidays I always loved so much became a chore and a time of fear, stress, resentment, and anxiety. There were years I spent the weeks before Christmas in tears and battling holiday depression.
The whole situation of having to prepare everything, including the presents, was mentally and financially too much. Sitting at dinner with family, pretending to be happy was too overwhelming. Getting dressed up and doing my hair and make-up was impossible at times.
There was also a tinge of resentment every year when we did Christmas on the night of the 24th and then just slept in on the 25th. The realization that we were far away from all our family with nobody to spend the holidays with was tough after all these years of celebrating together. It became a love hate relationship and I was constantly torn between the two feelings.
“Christmas is a holiday that persecutes the lonely, the frayed, and the rejected.”
- Jimmy Cannon
Feeling alone when everyone is celebrating
I didn’t know that the holidays could be so lonely and bring up so many negative feelings. I thought I always had to pretend to be happy during the holidays and holiday depression was for people who just didn't like celebrating. It made me incredibly sad and combined with the anxiety I was feeling, it was not a good combination. There are many of you who will celebrate with a huge family and you may feel the stress of getting everything ready even more than I did.
The holidays can be such a massive financial burden that stress and anxiety set in months in advance. Maybe you will be celebrating alone and the thought of having to get through the holidays alone can scare the crap out of you. The feeling of dread already looms in September when the first Christmas decorations appear in the stores.
No matter what your situation is, you deserve a happy and joyful time during the holidays. Whether you slow down to take some time off, celebrate with family or alone, or decide to make the holidays an adventure-filled vacation, it shouldn’t be a time of anxiety, dread, and resentment.
How to survive holiday depression?
So, what can you do to survive the holidays? To try and battle through my depression, I started making some rules when it came to the holidays. Truthfully, some of the things I did didn’t make any sense to my family. But, as much as the holidays were about them, they were also about me and my sanity.
I didn’t want to have a breakdown from November to mid-January each year and then spend months trying to dig myself out of it.
It was not productive and it didn’t help me with my depression. It also didn't solve the bout of holiday depression that hit me every year.
So, here is what I did and still do today when the holidays roll around.
1. Stick to a routine
I found that with depression, routine and habit became the key factors in eventually breaking through it. During the holidays my normal routine would get all messed up. There were family and work parties, late nights, and people always needing unexpected things. “Oh, it’s the holidays. Can you please…?”
So, I always ended up putting what I needed last and helping everyone else. Some people needed help wrapping presents. Some needed me to help with food prep. And some family members needed to be driven around to do shopping. There was helping with snow removal and decorating the house. It just seems that during the holidays, everyone has a special license to ask for favors because it’s the holidays.
If you are afraid that saying no makes you selfish, don’t be. Knowing where your boundaries are and respecting your personal space are not selfish things. They are things that will help you make sense of stressful situations and find a way to stay balanced when things get overwhelming.
It's essential to look after yourself first.
Pick the things that don’t make you feel overwhelmed and do them. If you feel you cannot attend several holiday parties, pick one or two and let the rest know you are unfortunately booked already. Saying no does not mean being rude. It is simply being honest and letting people know when it is too much.
If you feel up to wrapping a few presents, but clearing your aunt’s driveway is too much, be honest and say so. The holidays are not about giving yourself up and feeling crappy. Love is also knowing when someone is not feeling well and respecting their space and what they need to stay healthy. Once I got over the initial dread of saying no to people, I found a polite and loving way to express my needs, while still getting along with everyone.
2. Make a Budget
Finances can take a major hit during the holidays and even before then, if you are pre-shopping to get the sales in August. Presents, decorations, food, accommodation, and travel expenses add up. Before you know it your credit card is maxed out and this is not something you need on top of your holiday depression. There is this pressure to keep up with everyone and keep spending, even if this causes nothing but anxiety for you.
What helped me immensely was setting a holiday budget. I still do that now. The difference is that we have decided over the years to really steer away from presents and just enjoy each other’s company with an amazing dinner. We can budget the food costs beforehand and know what we need to spend.
If you are buying presents for a lot of people, set a limit and stick to it. Talk to your siblings and decide on a small amount that everyone will buy a present for (or buy presents in that amount for the kids). You also don’t need to give a gift to everyone you know. Cards are a perfect way to express holiday thoughts to someone and even giving small crafts you made from pine cones or other things found in nature make great gifts. I found that most times the simple, homemade gifts were much preferred over something store-bought.
Find creative ways to save.
I also liked doing some baking and that made inexpensive gifts for many people. One tray of cookies goes a very long way on some decorative plates. If you are not inspired, you can have a look online for quick homemade gifts. This will help with your budget and you can save the more expensive gifts for a handful of people close to you.
If you need to travel to see family, be sure to budget for that and maybe instead of presents, everyone can chip in for a travel fund. Flights are incredibly expensive during the holidays and so is driving across the country. Expecting family to just pay for that on their own can be a huge source of stress.
There were many years I could not go home for the holidays because it was too pricey and my family completely understood and supported me. Instead of breaking the bank, we would do video calls and unwrap a few simple presents together on video. It’s not the same as being there but it takes away the stress of having to travel during the holidays.
3. Find a Holiday Buddy
This is a big one. If you are alone during the holidays, find a holiday buddy. This sounds a little silly, but trust me, you do not need to be alone during the holidays. There are many people looking for someone to spend time with and you can even find groups of people who get together for a meal, a show, or a movie during the holidays or on Christmas.
Many people or groups post online on Facebook or just in local classifieds. There are holiday meals organized by a lot of charitable organizations and many do a dinner and dance or some kind of entertainment for those alone during the holidays. You might find that isolating yourself during the holidays will spiral you even deeper into your depression and having a holiday buddy can prevent that.
There are many people alone during the holidays, looking for someone to share some time with.
When I celebrated alone one year at university, there were many students who could not travel home for the holidays. We ended up doing some fun activities together and making a fantastic, multicultural meal, where everyone showcased their traditional holiday food. Nobody had to spend the holidays alone. Despite my urge to isolate myself, I was so glad I had participated.
Ask around before the holidays to line something up. This is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Being alone is a circumstance and has nothing to do with your self-worth or the fact that you are not loved. You would be surprised at how many people find themselves alone during the holidays and would be happy to spend time with you. If you know this time of year usually makes you very anxious, prevent this feeling and connect with someone or a group.
4. Check in on yourself
There it is again - self-care. And I admit that I did not self care during the holidays. It was part of the reason I had such a horrible time. As we talked about earlier, setting personal boundaries and saying no is one way to self-care. If you are battling depression, chances are that you will need a lot more self-care than that to get through the holidays in a healthy way.
The important thing is to anticipate. You know that the holidays will be coming up. Even though you might not have the energy or the clarity to plan anything, write this down somewhere and really push yourself to stick to it. If you do not check in on yourself and self-care, you will suffer much more than if you do a few simple things in advance.
One thing you absolutely need to do is plan for rest. Give yourself a little bit of time every day to do something you enjoy, decompress, and just spend by yourself. Maybe listen to music, watch some videos online, have a bath, or go for a walk. Whatever it is you like to do, plan time for it every single day. Things will get crazy and you will forget to find your balance every day. This is how you will end up overwhelmed and hiding in your bedroom under the covers.
Being prepared ensures you are not steamrolled by the holidays.
Also put your techniques in place, so you can take control back every day. Plan for some meditation and or hypnosis, if that is something you are working with. Practice neuro-linguistic programming or tapping every day. Whatever your go-to is, make sure you pay special attention during the holidays to do it.
Setup some appointments to help you get through. You can schedule a few therapy appointments in advance, knowing you will need the support. Whether you see a therapist, or you need something like an acupuncture or massage appointment, do it. Anticipate that you will need that extra care for a few weeks.
5. Keep tabs on your food
For me, the holidays were always about food. We would eat special food with family. We attended holiday parties at restaurants and at peoples’ houses. And each Advent Sunday before Christmas, we lit one candle on the wreath and ate cookies the whole afternoon. There was so much food. We basically stuffed ourselves from first Advent to January 6th, when it was time to go back to work and school.
The massive amounts of sugar, fat, and extra calories really did a number on me. On top of battling with depression, this unhealthy lifestyle pushed my body even further to the limit. It took months to feel normal after the holiday season. Not being in the head space to exercise didn’t help, of course.
I make it an absolute priority now to watch my food very closely, so I can enjoy the holidays without the terrible side effects. I enjoy food and sweets, but everything in moderation. At parties, I will just taste a small bite of everything and leave it at that. For holiday dinners I sample the things I like and take care to walk away feeling satisfied but not stuffed. There is always more food, so need to overdo it.
Enjoy everything in moderation.
Since adopting this attitude, I have felt a lot better during the holidays. I also make sure I hydrate a lot with water every day. I know there is a tendency to drink a lot of alcohol and sugary drinks like eggnog (or both) and the results are scary. You will be dealing with the sugar effects, a hang-over, and your depression.
If you can savor specialty drinks just a few times during the holidays and stick to water the rest of the time, your body will feel much better. It won’t have to fight so hard to detox, which will leave it more bandwidth to work with your depression. So, don’t deprive yourself of the things you like, but understand that it’s easy to overdo everything during the holidays.
No matter what your situation is...
Although the holidays can be an unnerving time filled with anxiety and depression, there are things you can do to bring yourself some joy. Surviving the holidays is stressful and takes a lot of energy. It is even more difficult when you are depressed and trying to stay afloat.
Make a point to take care of yourself and pre-plan. Anticipate that you will need support during the holidays and organize your sessions and support system. It will take some work on your part, but it will be worth feeling just that bit more balanced.
The recovery from stressful holidays can take weeks and months and can railroad any progress you made in breaking through your depression.
... you deserve to be free from holiday depression
If you feel like the invisible person in the room because everyone else is celebrating, take a moment to acknowledge your feelings. Understand that what you are feeling has a reason and is the result of your personal experiences.
It is alright to "not be happy" during the holidays. Everyone's situation is different and your feelings are completely valid.
As you continue to work through your depression, you may find that your social anxiety and holiday depression ease up. This is because you are better understanding your triggers and what you need in order to feel alright.
It's important to practice self-love during the holidays. You are a strong and lovable individual who deserves all the holiday cheer this world has to give!