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Experiencing the Holidays with Depression

Reading time | 4 mins

The holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. During this time, you’re expecting to be around food, family, and friends. You envision perfect evenings and gatherings with the people you care about most.

At the height of holiday season, it feels like everything around you reinforces these ideas, from the photos and videos you see on social media, the commercials on television, right down to the stores you shop in on a regular basis.

But what happens when you’re not so happy during the holidays? For many of us, the change in weather and long, dark days can make for seasonal depression or may even exacerbate existing chronic depression. Combine that with the need to come together with a large group of people, and you may have a recipe for added stress and anxiety. For those of us who have a strained relationship with family, this isn’t an easy time of year.

In the days before my depression, I looked forward to the holidays. I loved the sense of hope and excitement that I would feel during this season, and the opportunity to see so many friends and family members all in one place.

However, holidays, especially when you come from a big family like I do, require a whole lot of work and effort to be there, and to be present. At my lowest, when I was coming out of a divorce and just trying to wrap my head around living my life again, a big family holiday was entirely too much for me to handle emotionally. There were so many people to interact with, and the idea of that just exhausted me.

When my depression symptoms are at their worst, being around a lot of people isn’t my idea of a good time. I just want to be alone so I can think and try to recover from the pain I’m feeling. With family, it often feels like they have their own ideas about me that they can’t reconcile with the person I am during a depressive episode. It can feel like I’m letting them down in some way.

With depression, I already felt like I’d let myself down by not being in the circumstances I wanted to be in. Whenever I spent the holidays with my family, I felt like I was bringing the whole mood down with my sadness. I didn’t have anything positive to talk about because my life was going so poorly. I didn’t have any cheer or “goodwill toward men” to express. I just wanted to go home and go back to bed where nobody would bother me.

This withdrawal and isolation I was feeling made it more difficult for the people who loved me to reach out to me. My inability to be honest and connect with them about how I was feeling made me feel even more alone than I felt when I was by myself. At that point, I decided to completely avoid family functions for a while.

Why did I feel the need to hide from my family so much? It was complicated. I think I mainly didn’t want to have to pretend with them. In front of friends, associates, and acquaintances, it’s easy to pretend that you’re OK.

But when you’re looking at the people who’ve known you since you were born, it’s much more difficult to brush off their concerned “Are you OK?” with a “Yes, I’m fine.” Those people see past your excuses and look into your eyes and know that you aren’t truthful. So you avoid them, and you feel more alone than ever.

Strained family relationships can also make the holidays a bit more difficult — depression or not. I had a terrible fight with a relative (whom I won’t name) around Christmastime last year. They wounded me so badly that I refuse to spend any time with them again.

When you have those types of relationships with your family, it can feel impossible to enjoy the holiday. Nobody appreciates coming together on a holiday only to be treated poorly. This type of dynamic may cause undue stress.

If you’re struggling during the holiday season, it’s really important for you to understand that you aren’t alone. No matter what your relationship with your family is like, there are people who care about you and who can relate to how you’re feeling.

In my experience, it’s best to find ways to create the holiday experience you would like to see. Avoid those relatives who seek to shame you or make you feel bad for being who you are. Become very clear about who you are, what you’re willing to disclose to your family, and how you can do that while still enjoying yourself. Seek out those who accept you just as you are — and who may also need a safe space just to “be.”

You aren’t doomed to tense, painful holidays. Create the boundaries, stay within them, and move forward. You have the right to be yourself and to enjoy your holiday.

For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.

Article resources

Seasonal affective disorder. (2016). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml

For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team. 

DEPR-US-NP-00046 DECEMBER 2018