Depression and the Holidays Survival Guide

Under Articles on Mental Health, Depression and the Holidays, Living with Depression

Let’s be honest – even if you’re not suffering from clinical depression or the holiday blues, 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:

  • In general, simplify the holidays.
  • 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.
  • Another option is to gift an experience. One Christmas my sister gave us a cooking lesson and meal at the chef’s table in a local restaurant. You could also gift a meal from a chef cooked in the recipient’s home.
  • 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. This is one of several suggestions I have for managing your depression during the holiday season.
  • 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
  • Retro Planet
  • 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)

    • Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song) – Amy Grant, Home for Christmas
    • Gabriel’s Message – Sting, A Very Special Christmas
    • Grown-Up Christmas List – Amy Grant, Home for Christmas
    • Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Pretenders, A Very Special Christmas
    • Most of the songs on Pink Martini, Joy to the World and A Very She & and Him Christmas.

    Do not listen to:

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

      I really hate the holidays, I lost my Dad 12/24/2014. I need a place to go where there are no colorful lights etc. Christmas is like a big anvil pounding on my heartache and shoves my grief down my throat. It torments me horribly

    2. Chantelle Otto

      Thank you for sharing, it can be really hard for people who don’t want to do anything during the Holidays. Seeing family, decorating, it all seems too hard. Hopefully we can lift spirits even in the slighted ways, I would suggest watching Christmas Movies, if you wish to be alone. Or even Baking can be a nice past time.

    3. And this Is Why Many Of Us Good Men Are Still Single Today.

      Well for a good single man like me that was very much hoping to meet a good woman to settle down with to have a family which for me the holidays really suck altogether when you have no one to share it with. What is so good about being single anyway? I will admit that i really hate being single and alone all the time since it can get very depressing most of the time when this really never should’ve happened to me in the first place to begin with since it is the type of women that we now have out there that are really to blame. Well with most women being so very picky these days since they’re really looking for the rich type of men these days since they’re very greedy and selfish as well since they will only want the very best of all and will never settle for less either. And when you compare these women today to the real good old fashioned ladies that we had years ago that most of them back then really put these women today to complete shame altogether since they were certainly the very opposite of what these women are now which really speaks for itself.

    4. Danielle

      Vacations? Gifts? Cards? I can’t even afford a Christmas tree. Not that I want one but the guilt I feel over not celebrating Christmas for my 15 year old son is awful. My depression is like a contagious virus he’s contracted. He seems listless and hopeless. I can’t even muster the energy to clean my home. If were lucky I’ll get to the store before it closes so we can at least have sandwiches on Christmas. I’m estranged from my toxic family. There is a hole that no one can fill from that. I’m adrift at sea with no roots. My home town was long ago gentrified. My mother used to cry and lock herself in her room throughout my childhood on the holidays and I resented her for being so selfish. Well on a positive note at least I don’t do that… I do that ALL YEAR! FML and Eff Christmas! Lines the pockets of soulless corporations that are raping the earth of it’s minerals and resources and sending our jobs off to China for CRAP we don’t NEED!!! For what to pile up more garbage & waste!! It’s all BS!

    5. Annie J

      This will be my compulsory pre-Christmas read every December!
      I’ve been moping around for weeks feeling cranky, miserable, and without a single iota of enthusiasm for Christmas festivities of any sort.
      I was diagnosed with depression over thirty years ago (but I recall being depressed as a child, so have had it forever it seems) so being more than well aware of the signs and symptoms, how has it taken me weeks to realise that I’m in the grey, paralysing fog of depression?
      I’m completely unmotivated. My home is a pigsty because I can’t be bothered cleaning it. I have no idea if I’ve bought the ‘right’ presents for the people I have to buy for. I have two family get togethers to go to and this year I haven’t prepared any food items to take along – I’m taking a bottle of wine to one and at 11.52am on 24 December I haven’t got much of a plan of what to take to the other – and I’m the main food contributor.
      The presents are not wrapped and I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money in the past few weeks but now can’t work out what it was spent on.
      I’ll say that I just haven’t been up to it if anyone asks, but mainly I’m going to have to grit my teeth and soldier on through the festive merriment – including new year’s eve which I loathe – and hope that I come out the other end feeling relieved and hopeful.
      Next year I will be vigilant and watching for the signs.

    6. anotheralone

      Well single people don’t do much better, specially when you’re living away from home, I just saw my neighbor get some pre-christmas presents and just wish I din’t see that cause I’m not getting any presents and although I felt happy for him I felt sad for myself at the same time, there’s no magical remedy for this, you just have to tough it out and wait for the holidays to end.

    7. Pat

      This is my first real experience with depression. I’ve always been the “glass half full” guy! But I’ve spent my whole life fixing other people’s problems. My ex wasn’t just a “glass half empty” person. Her glass was just empty no matter what! My daughters the same way. I think their negativity was more powerful than my positivity and I’ve given up trying. Now I have no desire whatsoever for anything. I don’t want friends, family, or to even leave the house. I hate what I’ve become & hate my life.

    8. Linda

      James, I feel the same as you. My Mother, in particular, paints this perfection picture that I cannot endure. My sister feeds into this. There is a bit of narcisstic family dynamics here. I can’t wait for it to be over. I am physically sick to my stomach waiting for it to be gone gone one!

    9. Ray

      Well i really do hate the Holidays since they really Suck for me when you have No One to share your life with. And for those of you that were very Blessed to have that which you have so very much to be very Thankful for since your life is very much Complete. Make sure you hold on to what you have since many of us out there Definitely Would’ve certainly wanted the same thing as well.