Tips for Managing Depression During the Holidays

Sad man looking out the window: "This sense of emptiness isn't your fault."The holiday season can be emotionally taxing for everyone. However, it is often particularly miserable if you are struggling with depression. You know you should be excited to spend time with family and should be enjoying all the preparatory events.

In reality, the very idea of shopping for presents, decorating the house, and sending out Christmas cards regaling the events of the last year feels like a feat similar to attempting to summit Mt. Everest.

Depression saps people of energy and leaves them with poor appetite, low energy and motivation, and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Add this to the knowledge you should be enjoying holiday festivities and you find yourself feeling twice as miserable and berating yourself for not being capable to enjoying the “reason for the season.”

While the holidays are exponentially more difficult for individuals with depression, there are steps you can take to manage both your depression and the holidays.

Honor your feelings and your energy level.

While it may seem like you “have to” engage in the traditional holiday activities, this may be impossible or unhealthy for you. If it takes all your energy to get to the grocery store most days, a weekend full of family holiday gatherings sets you up for failure.  Instead, make a plan based on your energy level and your ability to manage your mood.

Remember, depression is an illness affecting your mind and body so you will need to adjust plans just as you would for any other serious illness.

  • Tell the people who know you are dealing with depression what your plan is and ask them for support.
  • Develop a simple, direct and honest answer to let others know you won’t be joining them. Consider something like, “I’m sorry but I just can’t make it this year,” instead of more elaborate excuses.
  • Use the Broken Record strategy to deal with people’s objections to your decisions. Keep repeating you simple one sentence answer like a broken record until they wear down and accept your answer.
  • Remember, your priority is to avoid over-extending yourself and making your depression worse—not keeping everyone happy with your decisions.

Don’t isolate.

Woman knitting with friends: "Don't isolate, choose some low-key activities."Loading your calendar with holiday activities is unhealthy but so is sitting at home by yourself and allowing negative thinking to fuel your depression. While it can be tempting to isolate because it feels easier, it is not an effective way to treat depression.

Pick one or two things to participate in even if you don’t feel like it. Depression moves people toward inactivity so managing depression means acting opposite of the depressed thoughts and choosing to be active even when you don’t feel like it.

The key is to choose activities which move you out of isolation and inactivity while not creating overwhelming pressure to participate and “be happy.” Choose a low-key family function, service project or church service where you can be a part of the group without a great deal of pressure to “perform.”

Streamline gifts and cards.

Instead of attempting the task of writing and sending all your usual Christmas cards, consider sending electronic cards (there are several sites with free e-cards) and simply signing your name instead of writing something more extensive. E-cards allow you to acknowledge the people you care about without expending the energy, creativity and concentration required to write and send the traditional Christmas cards and letters.

Utilize this same philosophy when it comes to giving gifts—think gift certificates or gift cards. They make ideal gifts and have the added benefit of allowing you to purchase them online or while you are at the grocery store. If you want more personalized gifts, consider shopping online and having it sent directly to the recipient’s home. This will allow you to avoid the chaos of the mall and also allows you to give gifts without having to go to Christmas gatherings in order to disseminate them.

Scale back the decorating.

Simple Christmas ornament on tree: "A simple holiday can be beautiful!"Decorating the house and Christmas tree is a monumental task.  Instead of dragging all the boxes of lights and decorations out, consider getting a mini tree that comes already decorated. If this feels too bare, try adding a few evergreen boughs.  Simple can be beautiful!

Avoid self-criticism.

Depression makes it difficult to feel good about yourself or much of anything at all. It is important to monitor your self-talk and avoid beating yourself up if you are not full of the “joy of the season.”  Depressed individuals often feel “empty” much of the time and this includes during the holidays. This sense of emptiness and negativity isn’t your fault and doesn’t mean you are a bad person.  It simply means you are depressed.

These strategies won’t change the fact you are dealing with depression but will help you to manage your depression more effectively. By actively working to manage your mental health, you will be able to make the best of the holidays and minimize any potential negative impact of the holidays on your mental health.


Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and Clinic Manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.

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