Depression tends to increase during the holidays due to an increase in demands (perceived as stressful), family issues, and being unable to manage expectations.
During the holidays, there is an increase in the number of activities, tasks, and social events that people must manage. Shopping and gift-buying can cause financial and emotional stress and can create a need to manage crowds, traffic, and malls or large stores. Family, school, neighborhood, and work celebrations and parties create social, time, and energy demands. Traveling to be with family or friends for the holidays can cause a variety of additional stress. Being unable to be with family or friends (for whatever reason) can also be highly stressful.
If you are experiencing a significant loss or actively grieving, the holidays can be more stressful. School, work, and sleep schedules are often disrupted during the holidays and healthy ways of managing stress like ensuring good nutrition and daily exercise are often interrupted.
The holidays are synonymous with family, so any issues that a person has with their family will come to the forefront during this time. If there is loss, dysfunction, addiction, abuse, disconnection, separation, estrangement, or divorce occurring or affecting your family, then there is the likelihood that you will have to manage the emotions that are related to these issues. For someone already managing depression, it is an additional emotional burden.
Although the holidays can be a time for celebration and a return to the faith or values or people that help provide support for us, all of the increased demands on our time, energy, patience, and flexibility can take a toll. People greeting each other with the expression “Happy Holidays!” can even be perceived by someone with depression as a demand or an expectation they cannot meet.
For those managing depression who may already be struggling with symptoms of fatigue, irritability, sadness, and feeling unable to cope with change or additional stress, the result of all the additional stress of the holidays can be simply feeling unable to meet those expectations, which can unfortunately lead to increased feelings of depression.
When one of the expectations of the holidays is to be “happy,” there is a 100% chance of failure for the person with depression. A common symptom of depression is anhedonia, or the loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities or the inability to experience pleasure.
Due to the increase in stressful demands, inability to sidestep family issues, and difficulty managing expectations, the holidays can leave a person dealing with depression with increased feelings of sadness, guilt, inadequacy, overwhelm, alienation, and unworthiness.
Managing depression during the holidays requires finding effective ways to manage all of the stressors listed above. Reducing, eliminating, or finding creative ways to deal with holiday-specific demands on your time, energy, and emotions are important and working with a therapist or accessing other resources on coping with depression may help.
Having a plan for managing family issues or avoiding them entirely this season may be necessary to prevent an increase in depressive symptoms. Set realistic expectations, first for yourself, and then communicate what those are to others. You may need to modify the typical “holiday survival tip” advice that is given if you are managing a depressive episode. Instead, give yourself credit for basic functioning, and try not to worry too much about meeting extra expectations simply because it is the holidays. There will be other ones and they can be different than this one.
Coming out of the holidays in the same (or better condition) as you went into them should be the goal.