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The [Un]Happy Holidays: Combating Holiday-Induced Depression and Anxiety

Updated: Mar 28

[Disclosure: Holiday-Induced Depression and Anxiety [H-IDA] is not an actual diagnosis. However, the holiday season is a common enough trigger for symptoms of depression and anxiety that we've coined the phrase for the purposes of this article.]

We stereotype the holiday season as a time of happiness and tranquility. You can scroll through nearly any form of social media to see happy families engaging in time-honored traditions and loving embraces. There are picture-perfect family poses complete with santa hats and exaggerated smiles. Many people LOVE the holiday season. If you do, that’s fantastic, but then this article is not for you.

In fact, this article is for those who feel hopeless, lonely, heartbroken, anxious or overwhelmed during the holidays. It’s for those of you for whom the hustle and bustle, stress of difficult family relationships or profound grief following the loss of a loved one permeates the season. Perhaps you already know why the holidays are so painful for you. Maybe you’ve experienced a death, estrangement, divorce, financial difficulties, or health problems this past year that you feel ten-fold during what is “supposed” to be a happy season. Maybe you are not sure why you feel this way at all or you just tend to feel a little down or pessimistic around this time. Perhaps the emotional highs of Christmas morning are followed by a sense of hollowness as the tree is taken down and twinkling lights go out. Even when you do have a loving family, your basic needs met, and realistic expectations that things will continue in that way for you, it’s possible to feel an inexplicable emptiness and pain that is magnified against the joy it seems is felt by everyone BUT you. 

For whatever the reason this season is difficult for you, here are some suggestions to get you through:

Manage your expectations. 

It’s important to be realistic about the unmet expectations you have for yourself, others and the world when it comes to the holidays. Think of the “shoulds” you might be subconsciously filtering how things actually are, through the way you feel they “should” be. For example, “I should have more money,” “I shouldn't have to work so hard,” “I should be able to have closer, more fulfilling relationships,” “It shouldn’t snow,” “I shouldn’t have to work when others get time off,” “My family should be whole.”

The “shoulds” create inner-resentment and can even build up over time to depression and anxiety. Acknowledging your unmet expectations is the first step in letting them go. Do an exercise where you free-write every should statement about the holidays and evaluate whether you are considering your “shoulds” to be objective truths. Challenge yourself to see it more realistically. The biggest culprit of holiday depression and anxiety is often the fear of, or actual unmet expectations.

Pare down

It’s easy to get focused on shopping and buying- Filling your online carts full to the brim and enough to break your monthly budget is a common experience this time of year. Do you hit that “buy now” button or do you hover over, knowing you can’t afford it and feeling like it’s all pointless, anyway. While shopping can give you a temporary emotional high, you’re better off dumping your online cart and closing the browser. Instead, turn the season in to “doing” and “creating” rather than “buying” and you're going to create longer-lasting memories and better connections with others. 

Check out local community events to participate in, say yes to social engagements, volunteer with charitable organizations and make the gift exchanges a side gig rather than a main event. If you’re still hesitant to pare down, stop and try to name every gift you gave or received last year. How memorable were those items, really, just one year later? Did they provide long-lasting happiness? Did they improve your relationships with others? If not, were they worth it? Focus on activities and people rather than things and you will feel much more fulfilled. In fact…..

Focus on relationships 

This seems obvious- the reason for the season is about relationships and focusing on things outside of ourselves. This may mean religious beliefs or connection with others. But if you’ve lost a relationship, it’s hard to feel positive at this time of year. Actively remembering your lost loved one and involving the memory of them in the process of celebrating the holiday can bring some additional peace. They are ever-present in your mind, so talk about them and the good moments you had. Honor their memory and spend some time thinking about what they felt about the holidays or celebrations and traditions they appreciated. The grief process is different for everyone so be gentle on yourself if you can do this yet.

Something else that can be helpful is to remember there are likely many people still in your life worth strengthening a connection with. Set a goal to improve or strengthen one relationship. What can you do to make amends or to forgive? Are there acquaintances you could work toward developing a friendship with? Can you work to build better boundaries to feeler safe in a relationship with someone? Perhaps you could learn the Love Language of your chosen person and focus on creating a better, healthier bond by demonstrating love in their own love language. Due to the nature of historically difficult relationships, you may want to involve a therapist in this process. 

Be a GIVER of charity and gracious RECEIVER when offered charity.

It seems obvious this time of year, but if you are going through difficult financial times, you may be the one in need of some charity. If that’s the case, graciously accept help when offered. It’s noble to do so, because when you do, you provide others the opportunity to feel meaningful in their own life. That is a gift you give to them. Of course, no matter how little you have or how much you are struggling, you can find someone you can help as well. Shoveling a neighbors walk, paying it forward at a drive-through, writing a kind note or volunteering will help you feel you have purpose and worth. You feel greater connections to humanity when you help others, even if you do not physically interact with the person. You start seeing the good in the world and believing it is there. You know that because you ARE the good in the world. 

Please know, the holidays are rough for many people. You are not alone in that. There may be many differing reasons but following the steps above may help you get through them, and potentially even enjoy them, a little bit better.

Have other suggestions? Comment below!

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