It’s the most wonderful time of the year... well, not for everyone.
While images of love and joy fill storefronts, TV screens and magazine pages, for many people, the reality of the holidays isn’t so cheerful. Between stressful end-of-year deadlines, family dysfunction and loss, changes in eating and drinking habits, and increasingly cold and dark winter days, it’s easy for the holiday season to feel not-so-merry and bright.
Constant reminders of others’ happy seasons can additionally serve as a painful reminder of the happiness and love that’s lacking in our own lives. For this reason, the month of December can be a particularly difficult time of year for those dealing with family conflict, loss, break ups, divorce, loneliness and mental health issues.
Feelings of depression and negative mood affect many people at the holidays, and not just those who have been diagnosed with clinical depression. While there hasn’t been data to suggest an actual rise in depression rates and suicides in December (a myth that seems to persist each year), some experts say that the holiday blues are a very real phenomenon. And of course, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is the case.
Here are some of the risk factors of holiday depression, and how you can avoid them:
Setting up unrealistic expectations.
Hoping for a picture-perfect holiday season is setting yourself up for not only disappointment, but potentially symptoms of depression.
“People have this anticipation or fantasy of the holiday that you would see on TV,” said psychiatrist Mark Sichel, author of Healing From Family Rifts, adding that his practice gets much busier after the holidays. “Actually, it’s never exactly as people anticipate and it’s often disappointing. There’s often strife within families that comes out at holiday times.”
Especially when it comes to family especially, it’s important to manage expectations during the holidays and not hope for things to be perfect. If holidays tend to be a time of conflict in your family, or you’ve recently experienced the loss of a loved one, putting pressure on your family to all get along or to be cheerful could lead to disappointment and additional anxiety.
Being mindful of what you do have to be thankful for ― your sister who always makes family gatherings bearable, getting a week off of work, or just the promise of a fresh start with the beginning of the new year ― can help combat feelings of deficiency and lack.
“Realize that the holidays do end ― and take stock of what you can be grateful for,” Sichel said. “Having gratitude is probably the best antidote against depression.”
Trying to do too much.
At the holidays, the pressure of trying to do everything ― plan the perfect holiday, make it home to see your family, say yes to every event, meet those year-end deadlines ― can be enough to send anyone into a tail spin. And if you’re prone to anxiety and depression, stress (and a lack of sleep) can take a significant toll on your mood.
A heightened pressure and fear of not getting everything done are some of the most common triggers for the holiday blues, according to Sichel.
“Being bogged down by perfectionism” can contribute to feeling down, Sichel explained. “Many people feel they just can’t do the right thing, that family members are always disappointed in them.”
Comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides.
Both in real life and on social media, it can be difficult to avoid comparing yourself with others around Christmastime. If you have a less-than-perfect family, a past trauma from this time of year, or just a less-than-full holiday dance card, comparing your holiday experience with other peoples’ is a recipe for increased sadness and isolation.
And as Sichel points out, these comparisons tend to be skewed — and they tend to make us feel bad about ourselves.
“People’s basis for comparison is not based in reality, because most families have issues and most people do not have the perfect Christmas that they would like to have or that they’d remember from their childhood,” Sichel said.
Slacking on self-care.
For many people, December is the busiest time of the year. When work pressures pile up and the calendar gets full with social obligations, the routines that normally keep us healthy and happy — yoga class, morning runs, healthy home-cooked meals, time to just generally decompress — are usually the first thing to fall by the wayside.
In addition to increased stress, eating poorly and drinking excessively can also exacerbate issues like stress, anxiety and depression.
“Take care of yourself — don’t overeat and over-drink,” Sichel said. “Do your regular routines of exercise and whatever keeps you together during the year.”
Sichel emphasizes the importance of avoiding binge drinking. Alcohol is everywhere during the holidays, and if you’re struggling with feeling down, it may be wise to avoid drinking as much as possible — alcohol is known to worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
If you tend to start feeling down when winter approaches each year, and those negative feelings don’t go away after the holidays are over, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
According to Sichel, many people who think they are suffering from a case of holiday blues may actually be suffering from SAD, a form of depression that’s brought on by the change of seasons. But SAD shouldn’t be dismissed as mere “winter blues” — talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms of the disorder to find a treatment that works for you.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.