Depression and the Holidays Survival Guide

Image: Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer
Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer

Let’s be honest – even if you’re not suffering from clinical depression, the holidays can be stressful and often disappointing. We run ourselves ragged buying gifts, cooking, decorating and entertaining. Tempers flare as we’re thrown together with relatives whom we see infrequently, and don’t necessarily enjoy spending time with. Expectations are high that this season will be magical and perfect as we try to recapture the anticipation we felt as children waiting for Santa, or wait for a rush of emotion as we ponder the religious significance of Christmas and Chanukah. When those feelings don’t automatically well up, we’re disappointed. And, of course, we’re ready to take the nearest heavy object to the tv or computer when we see the same holiday commercial for the 487th time.

I broke down in tears twice while trying to juggle visits to my ex-husband’s family and my own (parents and two sets of grandparents on his side, an hour and a half away from my parents and siblings). I wasn’t even depressed – both those times I was on antidepressants and doing great. The sheer stress of the holidays was just too much for me.

Being Depressed During the Holidays – I’m in Hell, Right?

So that’s my view of how the holidays can be when you’re not depressed. When you are depressed, it’s like Dante created your own private circle of hell. The idea of doing all this holiday stuff while you’re depressed is beyond overwhelming. Shop for Christmas or Chanukah presents? You’re having trouble getting out to shop for food! Decorate the house? You don’t even know if you’ll get laundry done so you’ll have clean underwear tomorrow. Send out Christmas cards to 50 of your closest relatives and friends? What would you say in them – “Doing awful. My new pastime is staring at the ceiling. I hate myself. My clothes are falling off me because I don’t eat anymore. I can’t wait till the holidays are over. Don’t bother to call. By the way, Happy Holidays!”.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt

It’s miserable to be depressed during the holidays. One reason is that you know that you really should be enjoying all the wonderful things that come along with them. As down as I sound on the season, I really do enjoy a lot of Christmas-sy things – decorating the tree and the house, giving and receiving presents, watching Rudolph and the Grinch and even sending out Christmas cards. But when I’m depressed, the fact that I can’t enjoy these things makes me twice as miserable, and I berate myself for not partaking fully in the joys of the season.

The second thing that makes it so hard to be depressed during the holidays is that doing the holidays right requires planning and organization. If you’re depressed, you’re so far from having those capabilities that it’s pathetic. You can’t even plan past the next five minutes, let alone a whole holiday season. And organization? Please! You probably are about to have your electricity cut off because you haven’t been able to get organized enough to pay your bills.

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas? I Don’t Think So

snow_bunny_scarry-smAnother horrendous aspect of being depressed during the holidays, potentially, is spending time with people. Parties, dinners, get-togethers, etc. You’re having so much trouble smiling that you’re sure you have an absolutely ghastly expression pinned to your face. You feel like bursting into tears when someone asks you to join in singing a Christmas carol. Worst of all, you’re overly sensitive in general – to noise, to anything sad, like the other reindeer teasing Rudolph, to really garish decorations that make you really depressed for some unknown reason. So you have to try to act normal while all this turmoil and pain is going on inside you, instead of being able to cry and scream or stare at the ceiling like you can do when you’re alone.

On the flip side, being alone at the holidays (not by choice) can exacerbate depression also. You’re being bombarded with images of happy family gatherings that won’t be part of your holidays.

I’ve saved the worst for last – the thing that makes the holidays least bearable in a depressed state. It’s that everyone you know (and even strangers and TV commercials) is telling you how much you should be enjoying this time of year. Even if they’re at the end of their rope trying to get everything done, they will be telling you what a downer you’re being. You know you should be happy and having fun. No one has to tell you that. But they do anyway, and you just want to slug them and burst out crying at the same time. Yes, they “mean well.” But they’re not making things any easier for you.

Ways to Get Through It

Well, that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to be that way. I have some suggestions for the depressive’s holiday, drawn from my experience and what I did wrong during my miserable depressed holiday seasons. (By the way, these are also good for the non-depressive who’s totally stressed out and at the end of his/her rope.) You have to be willing to throw away all the “shoulds” that come with the holidays, though.

The number one rule is: Give yourself permission. Permission to drastically cut back on holiday preparations, permission to feel emotions other than unqualified joy and happiness and permission to gently but firmly say “no” to family and friends. Remember that you are ill. Clinical depression is an illness that is affecting your body, mind and personality. You are as fragile as any invalid. Keep this rule in mind during the season, and you should make it through okay. Remember – you are not a loser for scaling back. Other people would probably love to do it too, but there’s major peer pressure to “enjoy” holidays to their fullest.

That’s the rule; here are the suggestions:

    • Instead of making yourself go through the ordeal of sending out paper Christmas cards, send electronic ones instead. Hallmark and have a good selection of free holiday e-cards.
    • When it comes to giving gifts, think gift certificates or gift cards. They’re the perfect present. You can get them online or, at least in the U.S., at most large drugstore chain stores. Yes, everyone will know what you spent – who cares? If you have the energy and the inclination, do an extra-special job of wrapping. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. Also, consider shopping online, which also keeps you out of the mall. Maybe I’m the only one, but malls at Christmas freak me out when I’m depressed, and I’m ultra-sensitive to the noise and crowds.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, have Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanzaa at your house. No way. If it’s your turn, switch with someone else and tell them you’ll make it up to them. They’ll just have to understand. If you’re going to someone else’s place and you’re expected to bring food, buy it, don’t make it. If they want home-made, too bad. Let them make it, then. Just say, “I’m sorry – I’m just not up to it.” End of story.
  • You’ll need excuses. To people who know you’re suffering from depression, tell them that you’re just not up to doing all the holiday stuff, or going to all the holiday events, or expressing all the Christmas cheer. To people who don’t know what you’re going through, perhaps co-workers, tell them, “I’m just so busy, I can’t fit it in.” Or, “It’s just so hard to get into the holiday spirit sometimes, what with all the work that comes with it.” If someone calls you a Grinch say, “Well, what would Christmas be without at least one?” and spit in their eggnog when they’re not looking.
  • If you must send out cards, just sign them instead of racking your brain trying to come up with something cheerful.
  • If the usual Christmas music is really grating on your nerves, try different music, like classical or choral renditions of carols.
  • Scale back on your decorating. Don’t wrap the house and bushes in lights. Put the wreath on the door, and you’ve taken care of the decorating for the outside of the house. Decorating a Christmas tree is a monumental task, especially if you get a live tree. Consider scrapping it for this year, or just having a mini tree. Or use evergreen boughs to decorate a room, maybe with some lights or ornaments woven in. Simple can be beautiful.
  • Don’t beat yourself up over feeling empty instead of full of the joy of the season. You’re feeling empty because that’s a part of the illness. It’s not your fault, and you’re not a bad person or a loser because of it. Even people who are not depressed are often having trouble getting in touch with the real meaning of the season.
  • Try to stay away from the alcohol that’s flowing freely this time of year. Very simply, alcohol is a depressant. It’s the last thing you need. It may relieve the pain for a little while, but you’ll probably end up feeling sad and maudlin.
  • If you can afford to, arrange to take a vacation during Christmas. Go somewhere tropical or where Christmas isn’t celebrated, and just avoid the whole thing. You can use the excuse of getting ready for your vacation as a way to avoid social commitments.

Web Pages/Articles Online

  • 10 Simple Ways to Create a Happy Minimalist Holiday
  • Are You Having a Charlie Brown Christmas?
  • Being Alone and Depressed During the Holidays
  • How to Cope With Spending the Holidays Alone
  • Keep the Holiday Support Going
  • Managing Depression During the Holidays
  • Snow Globe of Emotions at Christmas
  • Social Anxiety During the Holidays
  • Survival Guide to the Holiday Season
  • The Holiday Train Wreck
  • When the Holidays Make You Sad
  • Here are some links which focus less on the commercial aspects of Christmas, Chanukkah and Kwanzaa, and more on the meaning, traditions and simple pleasures of the season.

  • 10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Chanukah on the Net
  • Christmas Movies
  • Christmas Traditions
  • Christmas Traditions and Customs
  • How Christmas Works: Guide to Christmas Traditions
  • Judaism 101: Chanukkah
  • Kwanzaa Information Center
  • Maddog 'N Miracles: Christmas Lights in Central Texas
  • The Gift of the Magi
  • The Philippines Shows the World How to Celebrate Christmas
  • Shopping Online

  • Archie McPhee
  • Born Pretty
  • Etsy
  • Exploratorium Museum Store
  • Lush
  • Metropolitan Museum Shop
  • Museum of Fine Arts Shop
  • Perpetual Kid
  • Sunny Caribbee
  • Sweet Grass Farm
  • Think Geek
  • Uncommon Goods
  • Christmas Morning by Maxfield Parrish


    Music Guaranteed to be Non-Irritating (Yes, it’s a short list)

    Do not listen to:

    • It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
    • Winter Wonderland

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    1. Thank you so much for this article. I live in a country where we celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, and then 25th and 26th we visit each other (between the huge extended family). However, the 24th Eve is the big event, the Christmas tree, and usually it is a matter of picking “where you will start your christmas”.. also known as “who is more important to you from your family and friends”. As a young adult with parents going through a divorce and all granparents very ill and some on their death bed, this year the choice was excrutiating. With no money, no presents, no decorations, heck, I don’t even have a christmas tree. The silly thing is, I do WANT to feel happy and ‘in the spirit’ , and keep running after it, I never imagined I could just NOT celebrate. anyway, this year I’m giving myself the present of trying to get out of depression and starting with finding a job so that i can afford a professional check me up and see, what can I do about my depression. So to all of you, who are deep in the dark gloom, I wish you peace of heart in this time. To the dear author – thank you so much for this article. If I could describe something as uplifting right now, this would be it.

      God bless,
      M. A.

    2. Try working at a mall during the Holidays and know what real Holiday depression is. No break just back breaking work, long exhausting hours and watching everyone else bask in relaxation and free time. Meanwhile you work 13+ hours a day sometimes 6 days per week with zero weekends off until January 16th. You have extra meetings and planning that places you at your store at 5AM or earlier and 11PM or later due to extended hours. You walk the bland grey rat work tunnels behind the stores while everyone else on the outside meanders through the false colorful store facades because you wish to avoid people not letting you have your break. To them you are a dirt servant that can be called upon at any time to help even when you have your jacket in hand and have taken off your name tag. Its now 10:45 and its the longest 15 minutes of your life as you watch all these last minute shoppers pour in your atore. To them it doesn’t matter that all you want to do is see your family and kids . all that matters is that they get their iPhone and get it now. Welcome to real hell.

      1. Yea well i did that too in my life. 12 and 13
        hour days at work aound the holidays. Now I have this person living with me he has kids he cant even see because of his ex. He says he loves me but all it is is just words coming out of his mouth nothing to back it up. I let him stay cause he has no place to go and a place he can visit his kids on those rare occasions. Having lupus just makes it worse pain all the time. My own family has broken apart. brothers and sisters critcal of each other. huh nieces and nephews that I gave beautiful Cristmases to while they were growing up could care less if i;m alive or dead. So screw it screw it all . Lights trees gifts blah blah blah. cant wait til its over.

    3. Thank you very much for this article and these excellent tips. If I may add to it, don’t be shy to NOT celebrate Christmas for a year, or at least to make a resolution to somehow “split it up” during the year, instead of doing it all in one chunk on the 25th. It might be tricky, but also a good reminder to others to keep the spirit through the year, instead of for just one day.

      I’m a lot like you, and strongly considering just not celebrating the holiday as I grow up (but being nice and peaceful during it, too…I don’t want to be mean or a grump). My FAVORITE present at Christmas is peace and quiet, that I may sit quietly in my room or lie in my bed and breathe deeply. Of course I know I can have this at any time…but I like feeling it as snow is falling outside and there is that wonderful winter stillness (in non-metropolitan areas, I mean).

      And I know about those songs to avoid…my lover and I agree that they are rather annoying. He likes the low-key ones that are kind of sad, but I need something a BIT chipper to remind me not to be completely sad, whether at Christmas or any time.

      So my present to YOU is my favorite Christmas song, from Home Alone 2. John Williams wrote it, and it always makes me feel kind of good….but does it do the same for you? I can’t say, but I hope it does.

      All my love to you and yours this season, and nothing but peace and warmth, too. May we who suffer from depression feel that quiet, comforting joy that we so need. 🙂 <3

      *gives you BIG walrus hugs*

      — Marc

    4. The only downside of this article is the neck strain I got from nodding so much. I typed in “I’m not feeling the holidays” and found this article. I just have to say it really helped, as I’ve found myself more irritated and unexcited by all things Holidays this year. Commercials, decorations, etc. I’ve also sometimes found myself nervous thinking about watching Christmas movies, parties, dealing with the onslaught of commercials and music, and the big 25 day. I’m already choosing dates and moments where I can tell myself “when you’re doing/watching this, Christmas will be over.” Hell I felt bummed the other day when I was eating a cheeseburger and drinking a strawberry lemonade because it tasted like summer, and it clearly wasn’t summer! I feel like this won’t be an ongoing thing but just for this year, but still it’s something to deal with. Articles like this really help, just because I can read it and know I’m not the only one, so thank you very much. I’d also like to add that one thing you should avoid is social media sites like Facebook, because that is another cesspool of holiday things. I’m a huge MMA/UFC fan and I’ve already bookmarked the MMA pages that I follow so I can visit them directly and avoid the endless “holiday” status updates. Also there’s a big UFC ppv event on January 3rd, and that’s one of the “moments” I’ve chosen to help me know that when watching it, the holidays will be over. That’s also something I feel helps with dealing with the holidays, looking forward to something specific and sort of counting down to that moment. It makes the time between now and the 25th seem shorter because the time between now and that event is longer, and the holidays/Xmas are just in the way so to speak. Thanks again for this article, it helps more than you know!

    5. Hey, I appreciate your article, my search for, “I’m broke, and I hate christmas” led me here. But you know what would be refreshing? More people admitting that christmas sucks and its so riddled with false culture that its difficult to see what parts of it don’t suck. I like your advice to take a vacation somewhere far from it and totally dodge any discussion about why i hate it so. Oh yea, that’s right – i’m broke, I can’t. Christmas sucks.

    6. This article really was a big help. I have been beating myself up for not having perfect decorations like others. Thanks for the advice!

      1. I just now came to this page.thanks to all of us who suffer depression worse during this season. I encourage you to think of something that makes you smile and know in 48 hours ..Christmas day will be over. Breathe. I truly understand you.

    7. Seriously? Spit in their eggnog… If they want homemade.. to bad let them make it themselves. Look I get it I am one who deals with holiday depression.. but to advise me to be an ass to people who probably do care about me and are able to tell that I am not myself… that advice sux. I believe there are many more appropriate ways to deal with holiday sadness. Wake up early and take a long walk on the days you are feeling blue and know you will have to be on for family and or friends.

      1. I think you’ve misunderstood who this article is for. It’s not for non-depressives who are experiencing holiday depression. It’s for people who are going through a major depressive episode. Something as simple as taking a walk might help if you’re feeling “blue,” but it won’t do much for someone who is suffering from depression (if that someone could even manage to take a walk).

    8. Great article.
      I had a severe bout of depress this year. I got lazy about taking my Niacin and it caught up with me. Although I didn’t put any pressure on myself to participate in the madness, this article provided me with much comfort.
      Nov – Dec are really no different than any other time of year. There’s nothing that obligates us morally, socially or religiously to participate in the chaos or the commercialism. There’s nothing that we do doing “the holidays” that we can’t do any other time of the year. Personally, I go into hiding during the holidays. Other than going to work, I’m usually MIA from Halloween through the first week of January.

    9. Well thank you for that inspiring article. (Read Sarcasm) If I need to get more depressed I know who to turn to in the future. Sincerely, Nino

    10. This article really makes a lot of sense. It’s demoralizing that the holidays can make you feel as if you’re less of person because of your lack of interest to participate. For some reason the holidays make you really judge yourself and you become your own worst enemy and critic. It’s sad!

    11. I HATE Christmas and all other holidays. The false sentiments piss me off and make me want to scream. If I didn’t think it would give so many pleasure, I’d off myself but I prefer making these dilusional sheep annoyed that I am still breathing.

    12. You know, I’m surprised that nothing on this site even touched the issue of being single during the Holidays, and how all the family and friends with significant others and families of their own, as well as all the cheesy Holiday movies have happy endings with people falling in love. As the only single person in my family, with no kids, I constantly have to live through the Holidays with a smile painted on my face and tell people I’m happy just to get to spend time with all of them…

      1. Andi I agree about basis you touched.I’m divorced. I’ve been disabled 14 yrs, which has turned my life upside down. My finances are main problem. Living on SSA Im left with never enough to make it month to month. When you’ve lost your home, vehicle, etc., everyone tells you it’ll be alright, but they have no idea. You can’t watch tv without seeing all people getting homes built, vacations and their lives being helped and your happy for them but ask yourself why can’t I get in on that.I record my shows & skip thru commercials all the time. We’re all different and handle life different. I have alienated everyone because they don’t understand. I’m a Christian and believe in God. To all of you, whatever your going through don’t feel guilty if you close your blinds & ignore doorbell. Remember your not alone. Thanks for these suggestions & please if you read this, don’t judge me or anyone sharing. This is about real depression. Its easy to exit site instead of trying to depress someone on herr. May God Bless Us All. I’m going to try & save for a vacation getaway in winter 2015♥

      2. Andi-
        I hear you…you are not alone…well – perhaps you feel that way -around your family…but I am single too–and truly it does SUCK, moreso around these holidays. Then, if you have family members that are heartless to ask “so, why are you single”? bla bla bla. I wish I could go to sleep–and wake up the day after NYE. Seriously. Hate these stupid holidays.

    13. I am glad I ran across this web page. On a good day I am just depressed. Things like stress, holidays and deadlines throw me into a depressive episode. I like how you simplified “how to get through it”. I rarely fine any that is beneficial and realistic for my situation. I thank you for making this available. I will bookmark it for reference and ideals.

    14. Thank you for this insightful and on the mark article. I can unfortunately relate to so much of this. If we were all adults I’d like to think I’d have no trouble saying ‘take this years Christmas and shove it where I don’t have to face it’, but I feel I have to be ‘better’ for the kids. It doesn’t matter how I feel though, this depression does what it wants and that’s pretty much nothing. Just getting together gifts has left me with several panic attacks and absolutely ZERO patience. My mind is like scrambled eggs. Merry Christmas to me :/

    15. Thank you for your excellent Advice. You’ve helped ease the mind of a stressed UK mum who is feeling very overwhelmed this Christmas xxx

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