As someone with clinical depression, the holiday season is particularly burdening. I feel the overwhelming sense that everyone around me is having “the most wonderful time of the year,” while to me, yuletide feels like a monsoon of pressure, isolation and lying in bed thinking about the chores I’m not doing and the parties I’m not invited to.
If a person in your life has depression (either clinical or seasonal), you may want to give them a little extra tenderness this time of year. “It’s very difficult when you have depression, to respond to the mandate to be ‘holly jolly,’” LeslieBeth Wish, a licensed clinical psychotherapist in Sarasota, Florida and author of “Training Your Love Intuition,” told HuffPost. “And it’s everywhere. You walk into your local pharmacy, they’ve got Christmas decorations up. All kinds of things are red and green. ‘Happy holidays’ feels like a command.”
As Wish described, the holiday season comes with an overwhelming pressure to be merry, spend money and go to all sorts of social engagements. If your loved one lost their job during the COVID pandemic or doesn’t have the capacity to attend large gatherings, they may feel even more isolated or judged in the winter.
“All the advertisements on TV are for expensive things,” Wish said. “But what if you can’t afford it? What if they can’t get out of the house?”
To take the pressure off your loved one, and to make them feel more connected this season, Wish suggested being very explicit and affirming. Let them know you don’t expect them to be running the Christmas parade. Remind them it’s OK to feel their feelings and that they don’t have to perform happiness. Check-in with them during the day, if only to say hi or send a picture of your lunch. And ensure them that gift-giving isn’t transactional and that you don’t expect or demand anything back in return.
In addition to kind words, Anita A. Chlipala, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Chicago, recommended initiating low-key hangouts to nix any holiday FOMO.
“People with depression can have distorted thinking,” Chlipala told HuffPost. “And so they might be making the assumption that ‘everybody else is happy except for me.’”
When all they see is laughter, lavish gifts and twinkle lights on social media, someone with depression may start to feel like they’re a Scrooge or Grinch for not being in the “Christmas spirit.” If your loved one is not up for parties or events, consider making cookies at home or watching something fun on TV.
And if you’re looking to nail the perfect present for your loved one with depression, Wish suggested keeping an open mind. Don’t be fooled by outdated conceptions of gift-giving — yummy takeout or help around the house are great presents for someone with depression. Handwritten notes, photo books or other sentimental gifts show your person how loved they are. (They also don’t add any of that “I spent all this money on you, what are you getting me?” pressure.)
To ensure your gift is well-received, Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California and author of “Joy from Fear,” said there are some things you want to stay away from.
“Avoid gifts that may increase a sense of expectation or feelings of worthlessness,” Manly told HuffPost. “Pre-paid solo gym memberships, a framed photo that might carry a negative memory, books that have a depressive energy or any gift that the depressed person may find triggering or take as an insult.”
Amelia Peck, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Hamburg, New York, added that people who are struggling with mental health often don’t feel seen or understood. While you may have intended a new yoga mat or “stress-reducing anti-puffiness” face mask to be soothing to your loved one, they may see these gifts as criticizing their body or lifestyle. Instead of trying to “fix” them or “improve” their lives, Peck suggested giving gifts that are just nice, kind things that will make them smile.
“Gifts are about showing love for others, and we can love someone by showing them empathy for what they’re going through,” she said.
To help you be the most informed gift giver this holiday season, we’ve rounded up the best expert-approved gifts for people with depression.
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Making your loved one a scrapbook of pictures from a trip you shared or a photo collage of pics of you together gives them something physical they can look at to see how loved they are.
"Gifts that help them remember good times or look forward to something in the future are positive ways to help loved ones shift their mindset," said Grace Huntley, a psychotherapist at Grace Huntley Counseling in New York.
This keychain looks like a roll of film, but can be totally personalized with up to 20 of your own photos. Your loved one can keep it on their keys and pull out the "film" to see happy photos whenever they want.
According to Wish, offering to help your loved one with a chore or house project they haven't gotten to can be a great present. Yet, you want to be extra intentional about your delivery.
"You don't want to say, 'I know that it's tough for you,'" Wish said. "You don't want to sound like you are better than the person or luckier than the person."
Has your loved one been meaning to hang some artwork in their living room? Declutter the linen closet? Sort the dreaded junk drawer? Instead of putting them on the spot or criticizing their housekeeping ability, Wish suggested sharing a chore they've been putting off, then finding a way to make it fun.
"Normalize it," Wish said. "Say, 'It's the holiday season, I feel really stressed. I wish I had a good friend to help me with those thankless chores. I can bring some sandwiches, we can turn on some music and make it not so awful.'"
A colorful drawer organizer is a helpful tool to keep that dreaded junk drawer a little more organized. The colors and different sized compartments in this one can help your loved one make a color-coded system.
For maximum comfort, Chlipala suggested gifts inspired by the Danish concept of "Hygge," or coziness. Think candles, socks, blankets, soft things, tea and anything that makes you feel and think calm.
This gift box has all of that and more. It includes "The Little Book of Hygge," loose-leaf tea, Swiss hot chocolate, a fancy chocolate bar, cozy socks, a mug, a floral candle and a reusable wooden crate.
Your loved one does not need to be shamed or lectured about joining a gym or doing more exercise. Yet, they may really enjoy going for a walk or hike or doing some yoga or fun movement together in a low-pressure way.
"There's a lot of research that shows that physical activity increases the feel-good chemicals," Chlipala said. "Go do a yoga class or spin class together, go for a hike or picnic in the woods or something like that."
If your loved one has mentioned wanting some accessories or equipment, like a yoga mat or a new water bottle, getting them those things shows that you're listening. This particular option has 7,682 five-star reviews and is great to carry out of the house.
While you may want to surprise your friend with coffee or dinner at their favorite spot, Wish explained that the expectation to attend a social event may feel overwhelming to someone with depression. Further, it may trigger feelings of shame or pressure if they're not feeling up for it, but know you spent money on an event.
Instead of something with a set date or time limit, Wish suggested making a "coupon" with no expiration to do something fun when they feel able.
"They don't know when they're going to be 'up for it,'" Wish said. "With depression, you have good days and bad days. Give a friend the option, 'You can call me at the last minute if you're having a good day.'"
"Those with depression often feel the need to put on a happy face for others; this is especially true during the holidays,” Manly said. "The pressure to be 'holly jolly' can actually take a significant toll on the limited psychological resources of those suffering from depression."
Manly suggested giving your loved one some "mood-boosting music," or crafting them a playlist you'd really think they'd like. This present is great because they can enjoy it on their own time and don't have to do that "put the sweater you just got on right now and pretend that you love it" thing your pushy aunt used to make you do.
Manly also recommended "puzzles with nature themes such as the ocean, sunflowers and forests" or other quiet gifts they can do at home.
"Those suffering from depression do best when they are allowed to be authentically themselves, rather than struggling to smile or pretend they feel cheery," she said. "In essence, if expectations to 'perform' are lifted, those who suffer from depression often experience a great deal of relief."
"Tickets to a comedy show would be a really great gift," Chlipala said. "If something strikes you as funny, your brain releases those like feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, which enhance feelings of pleasure. And laughing reduces stress hormones."
If your loved one is not up for an in-person show, Chlipala suggested watching one on demand or sharing funny videos from the web.
A gift card to Amazon may feel like a cold and thoughtless, robotic cop-out present. Yet, as Wish said, your loved one may be going through body changes, diet changes, losing interest in their hobbies and generally feeling disconnected and isolated from themselves, their loved ones and the things they used to enjoy. Instead of potentially triggering their discomfort or sending them on a shame cycle by sending clothes that don't fit or a book they won't read (or a gift card to a store they don't go to anymore), an Amazon gift card lets them get literally whatever they want, on their own timeline.
"What if they can't get out of the house?" Wish said. "What if it's a store that normally they were a size something or other but now they're not, so they don't want to go? I'm a big fan of Amazon gift cards with a private note."
"When someone feels depressed they can become stuck in that low feeling," Huntley said. "Good gift ideas can be things that help them feel loved or remind them that they're important to you."
Writing your loved one a list of your favorite things about them or making little notes with nice things, gives them something to read when they're feeling low. With this kit, you can choose to write your messages on mini greeting cards or long note cards each with little envelopes or in a prompted journal.
Chlipala said that creating a yearly tradition with your friend or family member can make them feel super loved. Whether you do a cookie exchange, walk around all the houses or downtown with lights or even pretend it's not Christmas and watch "The Fast and the Furious," making something a ritual gives them consistency and care.
If music has always been a source of joy for your loved one, they may love doing some caroling, even just with friends in their own house. This is a vintage-inspired book of Christmas carols, sure to bring some cheer.
You may think your loved one needs more exercise or benefit from a self-help book, yet Peck explained that gifts that scream "I know what's best for you," or otherwise make your loved one feel patronized are not the way to go.
"Stay away from anything that implies you're trying to fix them," she said. "Ask them what they'd like as a gift."
"I had a client whose depression kept them from being able to sleep soundly," Peck continued. "They asked their family for a weighted blanket that ended up being very helpful."
If your loved one likes art or sports, they may love going to a museum or game when they're feeling able. Giving them a gift card to a museum or venue means they can choose an event that fits into their life, not the other way around. "The general theme is no-pressure gifts and things they can enjoy in their own time," Peck said.
According to Chlipala, it's very common for folks with depression to self-isolate. While you want to be tender and respectful, she noted you may sometimes have to be a *bit* pushy, in a loving and low stakes way. "At some point, you might just need to say, 'I'm coming over tonight with some dinner, does six or seven work better for you?" Chlipala said.
Wish added if they don't live near you or really aren't up for IRL company, watch a movie together over Zoom or text as you're watching the same movie.
Wish said that transportation can be tricky for a person with depression. If you know they have a dentist appointment coming up or need to get groceries, offer to take them or pay for their Uber. She adds that if they are already dressed and out of the house, they may have the energy to get lunch after or otherwise "make a day" of the chore.
"If they get one day of energy in a week, that's really good for them," Wish said. "So you might want to say, 'On days that you have to go out, let me take you, and let's use that as a time to meet for breakfast or lunch."
Chlipala said that gratitude journals or more structured bullet journals may be a great gift for a loved one with depression. Yet she urges you to really assess if that's something your loved one would use and enjoy or if it would feel invalidating or like you're trying to make them not be depressed anymore.
If you're on the fence, consider giving them just a nice leather journal that they can write in and express themselves however they feel.
Your loved one may be low on groceries and/or not up for going out to eat. Chlipala said sending some warm yummy food, getting them a meal delivered or emailing them a gift card to their favorite restaurant lets them have a nice meal in a way that's comfortable for them.
Chlipala noted that for people with both clinical depression all year and seasonal depression, video chatting with babies, children, pets, older folks or just anyone that brings them joy can change their mood for the whole day.
"Just something where you just get that little kick," she said.
For a FaceTime that lasts forever, give them a framed picture of your little one (or pet) that will make them smile whenever they see it. Most drug stores, like CVS and Rite Aid, have photo centers where you can instantly print photos for around 33 cents each.
"Write a letter to the person telling them how important they are," Wish said. "You want to be specific. Not just, 'You're such a sweet person,' but 'You make me feel comfortable,' 'I can tell you about my crazy family and know that you won't judge me,' 'You helped me during this crisis,' etc."
Depression alters your sense of reality, Wish added. Your loved one may not realize how much you care or what they mean to you. Sitting down and writing a letter really detailing your feeling can help them feel connected and loved.
For another quiet creative activity, Manly suggested giving your loved one an adult coloring book and a nice set of markets or color pencils. This is a low-stakes, easy preparation/cleanup craft that they can pull out when they're in the mood to draw.
Per Chlipala, if someone's self-isolation is setting in, they may be skeptical about making plans and not able to come up with things they'd like to do. This means the buck is on you to come up with a set plan and to see how many people they want around.
"Be specific about what kind of activities you could do, whether it's one on one or in a group," she said. Would your friend want to have a DIY spa night? Get specific with your options and clear on what will be expected of them (i.e. "You can wear sweatpants, I will bring everything over and we don't have to invite anyone we don't like.")
This DIY candle kit comes with all of the materials needed to create six beeswax and essential oil candles and a storage bag for easy cleanup.