The happiest time of year can easily become the saddest. Between a neighborhood of beautiful twinkling lights and wish lists waiting to be filled, the holidays bring a lot of pressure. For you, the expectations could be so overwhelming that they trigger anxiety and depression. Because those feelings are a slippery, downward spiral, you might be tempted to relapse. With a keen focus on your feelings and the major pressure points that spark them, you’ll be better able to handle holiday depression—and save your sobriety.
Holiday Blues vs. Major Depressive Disorder
How can you tell if what you’re feeling is a little seasonal dismay or severe depression? The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines the holiday blues as “temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the holidays.” Symptoms of seasonal depression and major depression are similar and might include:
- Sense of loss
The symptoms of the winter blues, however, tend to be short-lived and usually pass with the season. Major depressive symptoms include:
- Chronic feelings of fatigue and hopelessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of interest in normal activities
When these feelings persist, you know you’re in a much deeper hole that requires immediate help.
What Causes Depression During the Holidays?
Stress and depression often go hand-in-hand. Psychology Today says, “When people experience stress, they often stop doing some of the healthy coping strategies that usually help keep their mood on track.” During the holidays, stress is widespread. You want to buy everyone presents on a limited budget, you feel the need to impress your in-laws with your cooking, and more. It can quickly escalate if you ignore it, so coping with stress is crucial.
Loss of a Loved One
A traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one, can trigger you to dive into depression at any time. But the holidays can be especially trying because of missed traditions and family gatherings.
You know the drill. Come Christmas Eve, you better have all the gifts wrapped and under the tree. Because there’s a looming deadline, you might feel intense pressure to get everything done—and perfectly—even tied with a bow. But perfectionism comes at the price of your mental health.
Lack of Exercise and Self-Care
The colder months make a jog outside seem much less appealing. It can even be harder to leave the bed and hit the gym. But “exercise is a known preventive activity for depressive symptoms, and decreasing the amount of exercise can worsen symptoms.” Further compounding these effects is the lack of self-care that happens during the holidays. When you’re busy providing for others, you might quickly run out of energy to care for your own well-being. This can make anxiety and depression much worse than they would normally be for you.
The holidays are full of buffet tables and Christmas cookies. All that munching can add up to weight gain. Unwanted weight tends to have a negative effect on mood and body image, which can cause depressive episodes. The consequences can be more severe if your depression co-occurs with an eating disorder.
Fewer hours of daylight can negatively impact your mood. It’s called seasonal affective disorder or SAD for short. Approximately 500,000 Americans suffer from SAD, and it’s more prevalent in cloudy climates and higher latitudes. This form of depression brings on:
- Extreme fatigue
- Craving for comfort food
5 Tips to Keep Depression at Bay and Keep Your Sobriety Intact
1. Say “No”
It can be hard to decline invitations from your friends and family, but your mental health depends on it. To make saying “no” easier, practice with yourself in front of the mirror. Imagine how the conversation might go, and prepare a response that works for that person in that moment. Practice until you feel confident.
2. Set a Budget
Tight finances can be a major source of stress. Before you start holiday shopping and commit to traveling, take a hard look at your bank account. Decide on an amount you can comfortably spend without putting you in a sticky situation. Don’t be afraid to find economical alternatives, like gifting home-baked goods or using technology to connect with family instead of buying a plane ticket.
3. Honor Your Loved Ones
It’s okay to feel sad if the holiday season reminds you of a lost friend or family member. One way to cope is to honor their life. Remember your loved one by doing something good in their memory. Or simply flip through old photos and reminisce about the good times you had with them. Taking the time to remember them fondly can keep you from spiraling into sadness that could lead to relapse.
4. Lean on a Support Group
Depression may make you feel lonely, but you don’t have to be alone! Let your friends and family know that you prefer not to be on your own during the holidays, and they’ll happily welcome you in. If family conflicts add to your stress and depression, look for a local support group. Treatment centers are also a safe haven with the added benefit of group therapy.
Volunteering has been proven to help you feel physically better. It also improves mood and self-esteem while lowering stress levels! Find volunteer opportunities in Worcester, Massachusetts or a city near you.
Take Control of Depression So You Remain in Control of Your Recovery
It’s important to recognize your triggers, so you can plan how to appropriately handle them during this busy season. If you’re not sure what exactly is causing your holiday depression, seek help from a professional. The team at Washburn House is trained to provide personalized care for every individual that joins one of our addiction treatment programs. Make an appointment, and we’ll happily talk to you about drug or alcohol treatment options that are right for you. We’re able to treat many co-occurring disorders, so ask us about that too!