13 Tried-and-True Ways to Deal With Depression During the HolidaysYou don’t have to be jolly, but you CAN manage your sad feels.
Turns out, depression does not GAF about the most wonderful time of the year. If you’ve ever been hit with a depressive episode (or just felt super depressed) amid the season of lights and cocoa and cute Hallmark movies, you know how much it sucks to be reminded that you contain zero cheer.
Of course, you’re not alone. There are so many other people struggling to get through the day, let alone a holiday party. Actually, therapist Omar Ali, LCSW, says he’s seen some of his clients at their lowest points during the holidays. Sometimes the season itself can stir up a lot of pain and loneliness, he explains.
While it can be really strange to feel bummed out or nothing at all while the rest of the country gets hyped for holiday things, judging yourself or putting pressure on your depressed brain to snap out of it is not worth it, Ali says.
You can totally just sit this one out, but it can also be helpful to connect with other humans who love and accept you (basically doing the opposite of what your holiday depression wants you to do), Ali says. Otherwise, scheduling time for self-care, journaling, or talking to someone you trust are all good ideas, he says.
Finding what works for you is most important though, so we asked people who’ve been there for the tips they’ve used to deal with their own brand of holiday depression. Take what resonates for your festivities this year.
1. Choose your own holiday traditions.
“The past couple of holiday seasons have been hard on me. During the winter of 2021, I was going through an excruciatingly painful breakup, and I think I sat with my grief for the first time in my entire life. Then, in early 2022, I felt more grief when I lost a friend who was really important to me. So, last year I really thought about how I wanted to spend the holidays.
Instead of spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with my bonus parents, who I’ve celebrated with for over a decade, I said yes to new traditions. On Thanksgiving, I decided to serve dinner at an organization that empowers unhoused people and then go to a friend's house for dinner where they accommodate my dietary needs (I can't eat most of the food at my bonus parents’ place due to my food allergies). For Christmas, I traveled to see my extended family whom I’m very close to.
I remember coming back from the holidays and feeling like I got to spend my time off the way that I wanted, which helped me feel less depressed.” —Sonia K., 28
2. Let yourself cry.
“For many years, I had seasonal depression and also felt depressed because of past holidays. If I need to cry, I’ll time myself for five minutes to get it out of my system and make plans afterward to get on with my day. I tend to feel things deeply, so by having boundaries with my emotions, I’m able to jump back into the present day without running the risk of spiraling into depression.
One of the things I’ve learned in therapy is that grief does not have an expiration date. There are things that I’ve worked through that still make me sad around the holidays. I think honoring that sadness is important.” —Betty S., 42
3. Find happy distractions.
“As I get older and my family and social circle get smaller, I’ve been feeling especially sad during the holidays. I’ve found doing things I enjoy that also require some focus, like cooking more elaborate recipes, really helps. Since I have more time off, trying a new recipe keeps me focused on the present moment instead of my problems. The same thing happens to me when I go hiking and take a new route that forces me to concentrate on what I am doing.” —María J., 48
4. Buy yourself presents.
“My mom’s birthday is in November, and, after losing her, the holiday season has been hard. After cutting off contact with my family, I had to spend the holidays alone. When I told my therapist that the idea of not buying gifts for anyone or not receiving any presents made me feel like no one cared, she suggested I shop for myself. I didn't go all out and wrap them, but I did leave them in their bags and boxes until I opened them on Christmas Day.
It took me back to the Christmases of the past where I'd open presents and watch holiday films. It didn't completely wash away the sadness, but it helped. I felt empowered knowing that I can bring myself happiness. I didn't have to rely on other people.” —Leila H., 28
5. Make overwhelming tasks more manageable.
“Though my depression is mostly under control thanks to medication, I’ve struggled with it for many years on and off. A lot of the time, my depression got worse as the holidays got closer. For me, it was completely paralyzing.
When I’m depressed any other time of the year, I can put off doing things that seem overwhelming until I feel better, but the holidays come with their own deadlines. I remember literally panicking because I couldn't motivate myself to buy gifts, figure out what we would eat, or get the house ready for family coming to stay. I couldn't make decisions and would second-guess myself all the time. The worst part was that I couldn't look forward to what’s supposed to be a happy time for my family.
But making a conscious effort to keep things as simple as possible really helped. I simplified the menu and prepared some of the food ahead of time, and I did all of my gift shopping online.” —Amanda G., 56
6. Let yourself feel multiple feelings.
“Being performative is never in my best interest, so if I feel like going to a festive event is going to test my bandwidth, I let myself do something unrelated. I’ll journal, walk my dog, cook a meal, revisit photos with my dad, or hang out with friends. And when I do partake in holiday stuff, like going to see neighborhood lights, I’ll remind myself that it’s OK to enjoy those and still be depressed at the same time. I don’t have to fix how I’m feeling.” —Candice S., 31
7. Take it one step at a time.
“Usually the best way for me to manage depression during the holiday season (hello, seasonal depression) is to take care of my basic needs first. I can’t worry about going above and beyond at work or in my relationships unless I’m taken care of. So that means showering regularly, keeping my space as clean as I can, making checklists, and completing small tasks to feel less overwhelmed. Although these things don’t solve my depression, they help me create an environment that doesn’t push me further into a depressive state.
For example, one year I had a Christmas party to go to, but I was feeling really depressed. I did not want to be around people or feel out of place. But, knowing that human connection can be helpful, I decided to take care of myself as best I could and still go to the party. I showered, got dressed, treated myself to my favorite meal, and made a point to not pressure myself to stay the entire time. I had lots of fun and was glad that the event gave me a reason to get out of bed.” —Sarah R., 24
8. Be comfy.
“I was very depressed one year over the holidays. I wasn't sure how to be around all the cheer without being cheerful myself. I didn't have it in me to put on a glam look and an energetic smile. So, for Christmas with my family, rather than wearing a dress and doing my hair and makeup, I decided to wear the most comfy clothes possible: red pjs, a big Christmas sweater, and fluffy socks. I wasn't faking it; I looked like what I actually was: tired and sleepy but also happy to be there. Turns out, nobody cared what I wore as long as I was there, and I was able to curl up on the couch without a fancy outfit getting in the way. Sometimes self-care is going to the party in your pajamas.” —Juliette C., 32
9. Let it out.
“I have depression all year long, but it intensifies during the holidays. I’ve learned that expressing my emotions in whatever way makes the most sense can help. I sing, dance, write poetry, journal, or just use my creative side to get through it.” —Kaksha M., 28
10. Stay off social media.
“A lot of my depression around the holidays stems from the fact that my immediate family always fights. It once got so bad that we simply didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Over the years, we started celebrating again, but I still get sad if I compare myself to people on social media celebrating with their big families. Staying off my socials and remembering I don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes helps.” —Anonymous, 32
11. Embrace long-distance connections.
“In 2020, I went through a depressive episode, and not being able to travel home in December made things even more challenging. But calling my family and hearing their voices helped me [when I couldn’t be with them]. It was like having my parents, grandparents, and brother by my side despite the distance.” —Diana R., 24
12. Keep up with therapy.
“My depression is something that’s recurred multiple holiday seasons, and it’s both related and unrelated to the holiday season itself. Back in 2003, when I was 11 years old, my mom passed away a few days before Christmas, and I think my depression can be heavily rooted in grief. I’ve also been diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
Therapy sessions help me to avoid isolating myself and get me out of my head. It helps to have my therapist’s support because then I’m not carrying everything by myself like I used to. There are definitely times when I don’t want to keep my appointments, but I do since I know that these sessions help me stay afloat.” —Candice S., 31
13. Let good enough be great.
“I focused on the fact that the most important thing about the holidays was being with my family and that it didn't really matter what we ate, whether the gifts were perfect, and how the house looked. I could actually make the holidays happier for everyone by being relaxed and engaged, and the only way for me to do that was to manage the anxiety that made my depression worse. I let go of the idea that everything had to be perfect, and it was OK if it was good enough.” —Amanda G., 56
Quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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