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How to Deal With Holiday Stress and Depression

Updated: Mar 31

✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic

The holidays are supposed to be a time to rejoice and partake in holiday cheer. A time to connect with family and friends, exchange gifts, and enjoy delicious food. Despite that, experiencing sadness, loneliness, anxiety, and/or depression during this time is not unheard of.

In fact, many people struggle with these feelings during the holidays. And it’s no wonder that’s the case, because it's not easy finding the perfect gift, traveling and gathering amid the pandemic, hosting a huge crowd for dinner, or navigating the many events on your social calendar. Furthermore, there’s also the unspoken pressure to make this year extra special in order to make up for the distance and challenges of last year.

Luckily, there’s still hope and you still have time to make the holidays less stressful and overwhelming. All you need to do is slightly tweak your habits and create a coping plan so you can keep the holiday blues and stress at bay.

What Lifestyle Changes Can Reduce Holiday Stress and Depression?

Having an arsenal of healthy coping strategies can help you prepare for and get through the festive month ahead. Try including some of these lifestyle changes in your everyday self-care routine:

  • Catch some rays: Decreased sunlight exposure can throw off your circadian rhythm, prompting your brain to produce too much sleep-inducing melatonin and less happy-inducing serotonin. So, try to get regular sunlight exposure – whether that means taking your daily walk in the sun or using a lamp that mimics sunlight for thirty minutes during the day.

  • Absorb natural light: Increase the amount of natural light in your home and workplace (if possible) by opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows.

  • Avoid alcohol consumption: Alcohol is a depressant, and drinking too much can exacerbate any negative feelings that you might already have. Try to avoid drinking, especially if you're feeling down, or, at the very least, limit yourself to one or two drinks.

  • Move your body: Many studies have shown that regular physical activity can play an essential role in preventing and reducing symptoms of depression. Even a light workout can be enough to help keep those holiday blues at bay.

  • Journal: Write down exactly what's bothering you in a simple sentence and think of ways to improve the problem. Journaling a list of things you can do to improve a situation can help ease uncomfortable feelings and give you a sense of control. Let’s say that, currently, you're battling loneliness during the holidays. If you journal about it, you may come up with some creative steps for tackling this feeling, like inviting a friend for lunch at a restaurant you’ve never tried before or joining a local exercise group or book club.

  • Use CBT techniques: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) suggests that negative and distressing emotions are caused by certain thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. In order for these thoughts and emotions to be reduced, they need to be examined and modified.

So if you find yourself having negative thoughts about the holidays, whether it is stressing about money, time, or family issues, CBT suggests that you should first gain awareness of these thoughts. And, once you recognize them, you can use techniques that help reframe the way you approach and deal with these thoughts.

Coping With Holiday Stress Amid COVID-19

During this season, with the pandemic still lurking and people disagreeing over safety measures, dealing with holiday stress can be even more challenging. Here are a few tips for handling COVID-19 complexities during the holidays:

  • Express safety preferences clearly and directly and, before you do so, preface the conversation by saying how much you value your relationship with the other person. Doing so may help defuse any tension that may result from conflicting opinions.

  • Ask whether attendees would be open to getting tested for COVID-19 prior to a gathering. Depending on the availability of testing in your area, this could be one option to lower the risk.

  • Create a self-care plan: On the day of a holiday get-together, do things that you know will soothe and calm you, like taking a bubble bath or playing music that makes you feel good. You can also create a post-event self-care plan. For example, you can promise yourself that you'll watch your favorite TV show when you get home.

  • Know your triggers. To decrease anxiety around the holidays, take a moment to consider what you're dreading most. Is it waiting in long, crowded lines to buy gifts? Is it sitting next to strangers on the plane? Once you've identified what's making you anxious, you can prepare some techniques that will make the most challenging part of the festive season more bearable.

  • Avoid social exhaustion: After being isolated for so many months, accepting every invitation to a social gathering may be overwhelming. If you're feeling symptoms of social anxiety (exhaustion, headaches, sweating, difficulty speaking, nausea, and increased heart rate), try revising future commitments and focusing on self-care instead of forcing yourself to attend another holiday party.

  • Don't feel bad about rejecting an invitation: You're allowed to make your own decisions about what you're comfortable with. So if you feel anxious about attending a social event, it's okay to set a boundary and decline. Setting boundaries is an essential part of your self-care and can help you honor your emotional, psychological, and physical needs.

  • Use technology to your advantage. If you decide to celebrate solo this year, it might help make a list of enjoyable activities ahead of time. You could FaceTime or Zoom with family and friends to keep family rituals going. Set a date and time for everyone to make cookies together, decorate their trees, have a meal, or open presents.

Ways to Cope With Food Anxiety During the Holidays

Holiday meals, like the holidays themselves, are supposed to be fun and enjoyable, but when you struggle with anxiety over enjoying seasonal favorites, a holiday meal can actually feel like a struggle.

Here's how you can cope with food anxiety and make the holiday season more enjoyable:

  • Be aware of your anxiety around food and challenge all-or-nothing thinking. For example, getting an extra serving of your favorite meal doesn't mean that you should classify your eating behavior as "bad."

Freely taking part in holiday meals is a way to connect with others during the festive season, and eating more on these occasions won't adversely affect your health.

  • Rely on people you trust for support: Pick one person at the holiday gathering that you trust the most and to whom you could say, "I'd appreciate it if you would distract me if you notice I'm looking scared or upset."

  • Prepare a canned response: Family and friends might make comments about your appearance or eating habits, and that's why it's good to have a canned response ready.

For example, you can redirect the conversation by changing the topic and discussing something other than food. For instance, if a friend declares that they’ll have to diet for weeks after all the food they just ate, you could smile and ask how their new job is going.

Or if you're asked outright about your appearance or eating habits, you could say something along the lines of, "Let's discuss more interesting things, like where you bought that beautiful sweater."

Is It the Holiday Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unable to function in your everyday life during the holidays, you should consider consulting a mental health professional to determine if your holiday blues are actually signs of seasonal depressive disorder (SAD).

SAD is a form of depressive disorder that occurs in seasonal patterns (typically during winter) and its symptoms mimic nonseasonal depression. They usually include loss of motivation for work or other activities, reduced social contact, anxiety, difficulty waking up on schedule, daytime fatigue, cravings for carbohydrates, and weight gain.

Holiday depression and SAD can be difficult to distinguish from one another, but the duration and severity of the symptoms are usually the best clues. For example, while the holiday blues usually start around November or December and end shortly after the New Year, SAD typically begins in the late fall and early winter and subsides during the spring and summer.

To be clinically diagnosed with SAD, you need to have experienced the symptoms for two or more consecutive years. But regardless of the timing or persistence of your symptoms, if the symptoms feel overwhelming, it might be time to seek help from a licensed mental health professional.

And even if holiday stress and depression are not adversely affecting your everyday life, consider making small changes in your habits to alleviate those holiday blues. With just a few lifestyle tweaks, this holiday season might become merrier as a result! Happy (and hopefully blues-free) Holidays!

Multiple Myndlift users report monthly about changes in their behavior and lifestyle. Get matched with a Myndlift Provider, either by finding one in your area or by enrolling in our Total Remote program.


About the author:

Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.

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