10 Tips to Avoid Depression Triggers During the Holidays

November 21, 2021

The holiday season is meant to be full of family, friendship, and fun. But sometimes the high expectations, financial pressure, and stress that surround the holidays can leave us feeling down. In fact, it’s common to hear talk of “holiday depression” or the “holiday blues” mixed in with excitement for the festivities. According to Psychology Today, while holiday depression isn’t a recognized medical condition, “therapists do agree that depression and anxiety tend to heighten during the holiday season.”

Depression triggers around the holidays

For many people, December can be a stressful time of year. The pressure to have a “perfect” Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa can be overwhelming for anyone. December can be an especially difficult time if you’re recently experienced bereavement, a relationship breakup, or other significant changes in your life. And for those who experience depression, the holidays can be full of triggers like family conflict, alcohol, and changes to your regular routine.

But while it can be challenging to head into the holidays when you’re feeling depressed, there are ways to make things easier for yourself. By planning ahead and taking the time to look after yourself, you can boost your energy and mood, and make the holiday season more manageable. Most importantly, remember that it’s okay to feel down around the holidays, for whatever reason.

10 Ways to Tackle Holiday Depression

1. Set realistic expectations

The first thing to do – before the holidays even begin – is to create realistic expectations for yourself.  The high expectations around the holidays can worsen depression. There’s pressure to manage a busy social calendar, shopping, cooking, and decorating. And it can seem like everyone expects you to be cheerful all the time. If you’re feeling depressed, you can’t be expected to be the life of the party all holiday season. And that’s okay.

It’s important to remember that everything doesn’t have to be perfect over Christmas. Make sure to set realistic expectations for yourself: don’t commit to too many social events, or say you’ll cook the whole Christmas dinner on your own. And be gentle with yourself if you don’t meet your own (and others’) high standards over the holidays. Not everything will go exactly as you planned, and that’s perfectly alright.

2. Make time for the people that matter

Young adult couple holding each other hands and walking on snow covered sidewalk through alley of trees. Peaceful atmosphere in snowy winter night. Enjoying fresh air. Back view.

Other people can indeed be a source of stress over the holidays. But the people we love can also be one of our best weapons in fighting depression and the holiday blues. Make sure to find time for the people who really matter to you, and make you feel loved and valued. If you’re able to speak to someone about how you’re feeling, do. They’ll likely understand exactly how you feel, and they’ll be able to support you throughout the holidays if you’re finding things hard.

Catching up with your nearest and dearest can also be an excellent opportunity to take the focus off yourself. Social connection can help ease symptoms of depression, and provide a welcome break from the stress and anxiety you’re feeling. Try to be present for the people who really matter, and you’ll find yourself feeling refreshed and supported.

3. Don’t forget about self-care

Most of us are guilty of letting our self-care routines go out the window around Christmas time. And it can be helpful to slow down, relax, and give yourself a break. But if you’re prone to depression, it’s even more important to stick to healthy routines and habits over the holidays. Make sure to eat healthily, limit your alcohol intake, and get plenty of sleep.

Alcohol can worsen symptoms of depression, and using alcohol to mask feelings only makes them harder to face in the morning. Not to mention, heavy drinking can lead to saying and doing things you’d regret. If you’re feeling depressed, it’s a good idea to limit your alcohol intake around the holidays.

It’s also important to get plenty of sleep and eat healthily as much as you can. A lack of sleep can worsen depression, so make sure to get at least eight hours of sleep every night. And a healthy diet will help you feel better physically and mentally – and mean you feel less guilty for the huge holiday dinners.

4. Exercise and get outside

Two friends jogging up the trails in the forest to get fit in the middle of December!

Exercise is a great, natural way to combat the symptoms of depression. And that doesn’t change in the festive season! Going for a run in your local park might not be your ordinary New Years’ Day activity. But you’re guaranteed to feel better – even if you only head out for half an hour. Exercise boosts the production of endorphins, hormones which improve your mood. Try to exercise 3-5 times per week, and you’ll counter some of the more stressful parts of the holidays.

Bonus points if you exercise outside because spending time in nature is known to improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety too. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a relatively common form of depression that many people experience around the holidays. It’s caused by changes in the amount of sunlight we receive – which is why it’s most common in the gloomy days around November and December. Try to spend some time outside in the sunlight every day to boost your vitamin D levels.

5. Remember it’s okay to feel down

Lots of people find themselves feeling overwhelmed around Christmas. If you’re recently experienced loss, trauma, or high stress, it’s perfectly normal to feel down. And you can’t be expected to switch your feelings off just because the holidays are coming. Rather than trying to fight how you feel and put on a brave face, take the time to acknowledge your feelings. Whatever you feel is okay – there’s no right way to feel at any time of year.

Try to be gentle with yourself and let yourself feel whatever you need to feel. If you need to cry, that’s okay. If you feel angry, that’s okay. Burying feelings won’t make them go away, but may make you feel less able to take on the challenges of the holidays. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t add extra pressure on yourself.

6. Avoid confrontation

While Christmas is meant to be all about good cheer, we all know the family conflict that comes with the festivities. It’s not surprising – it’s likely one of the only times you’re cooped up with close relatives all year, so it’s no surprise that tensions can run high. But that doesn’t mean you have to engage in confrontation or conflict, especially if you’re struggling with depression.

Practice some simple tactics for avoiding conflict around Christmas. Don’t engage with difficult conversations if you don’t want to, but if it’s genuinely essential, agree to address the issue later in a more suitable environment. Excuse yourself from tense situations and find something else to do (even the dishes!). And try to keep the focus on things you have in common, shared memories, and activities that everyone can enjoy.

8. Take time for yourself

It can be wonderful to spend time with the people you love over the holidays. But we all need personal space, and that doesn’t change just because it’s the holidays. It isn’t selfish to plan some alone time – especially if you’re the one cooking, cleaning, shopping, and hosting! Find pockets of time to read a great book, meditate, or simply go for a walk: whatever helps you relax and slow down your breath and thoughts.

Solitude can help us de-stress and reset ourselves, ready to take on another day. This is especially true if you struggle with social anxiety and find the social expectations of the holidays overwhelming. Set clear boundaries and expectations with the people close to you, so that you can take the time you need to engage when you need to.

9. Make (and stick to) a budget

Money worries can be a big trigger for depression and stress around the holidays. It can feel like you have to spend money that you don’t have on gifts, travel, food, and parties. The best way to deal with financial stress is to plan ahead. Take a look at your income, and your expected expenses, and make a budget that you can afford. Then, when you have to make decisions about where to spend your money, simply go back to your budget, and stick to what you agreed.

And remember, there’s plenty of ways to make the season more affordable. Plan a Secret Santa to save money on gifts, or home-bake edible treats for your loved ones. Don’t be afraid to turn down some invitations if you can’t afford them: you’ll feel much better for it in the long term. Besides, excessive spending isn’t what really matters about the holidays. It’s the people, connection, and love that make it a special time of year, not the presents.

10. Reach out and ask for help

If you’re feeling down, it’s important to share how you feel with someone that you trust. It can be a significant first step towards feeling better. If you’re experiencing the holiday blues, merely talking about what you’re experiencing can lighten the load and relieve some stress. And once they know how you feel, your loved ones will be able to help you navigate the holiday season.

Often, feelings of sadness around the holidays will dissipate within a few days, or once the holidays are over. However, the holidays can also trigger clinical depression, a medical condition that should be taken seriously. If you’re experiencing a sad, despairing mood for more than two weeks, and it’s affecting your work, relationships, and health, you should seek support from a professional. A doctor will be able to diagnose any depressive disorders and recommend treatments that could help. Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get the help you need.

Plan ahead to beat the holiday blues

With some planning, self-care, and social connection, it’s possible to tackle depression around the holidays and still enjoy the season. Be gentle with yourself, have realistic expectations, and don’t abandon your healthy habits just because it’s Christmas. And remember to be gentle with the people around you too. You never know what they’re going through around the holidays. Take the time to slow down, connect, and focus on what really matters, and your holiday season can still be full of joy.

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