5 Ways to Cope with Depression and the Holidays

December 4, 2019

When we think of the holiday season, we tend to think of the magical moments. But, for some of us, the holidays can be a difficult time as well. The unfortunate truth is that depression and the holidays can actually go hand-in-hand. I know—because it affects me sometimes, too.

When I was a child, the holidays were a huge affair. We would spend weeks preparing for a massive celebration, full of singing, dancing, and eating. We would open presents together, laugh together, decorate the tree together, and say our thanks of gratitude for having each other. I can often still smell the food and feel the linens in my hands. And certain songs often bring back warm memories.

But then it hits me: These celebrations no longer occur because those who orchestrated it all are no longer here with me. Sometimes it’s very difficult to focus on creating new memories for my immediate family because I am caught up in what it used to be and the fact that the holidays will never be quite the same again.

It’s very easy to fall into this trap and find myself crying over my lost loved ones. I miss them so much, and that depression can take over 10-fold during the holidays. The key for me has been to remind myself that others now see me as the “ring leader” for creating amazing holidays. And someday my kids will look back on our holidays with nostalgia. I am now creating fond memories for others—and that’s an important job.

Depression and the Holidays: What to Look For

I know that I’m not alone and that many people feel lonely during the holidays. Depression and loneliness during the holidays can be all-consuming. In fact, for a lot of people, depression and the holidays seem to go hand-in-hand. [1]

I can completely understand why you might feel sad during the holidays. Maybe it’s because you miss family members or friends who have passed. Or maybe you are nostalgic for old holiday traditions or get-togethers because you’re unable to be with family over the holiday due to distance or other reasons.

I find myself having to refocus my attention almost daily during the holidays due to this sadness of not having my loved ones around physically. And I know that dealing with depression and feeling the “winter blues” can feel almost impossible. Often, it may be hard to tell the difference between if you are “just” feeling lonely during the holiday season or if you are clinically depressed.

To be diagnosed with clinical depression, specific symptoms must be present for a certain period of time. These can include: [2]

  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic, sometimes accompanied by uncontrollable crying
  • Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
  • Lack of energy or fatigue; often not wanting to get out of bed
  • Brain fog (difficulty concentrating)
  • Insomnia
  • Changes in appetite
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Ongoing physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatment, such as headaches, pain, or digestive problems
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Avoiding social events and friends
  • Replaying certain stories/situations in your head

There are also different types of depression, including seasonal affective disorder or “SAD.” SAD is a type of major depression that occurs during the winter months and is sometimes called the “winter blues.” [3]

There is also grief, which has no season and no criteria, but can hit you like a ton of bricks whenever you hear a certain song or smell your mom’s favorite cookies. And it can be very difficult to get up and move forward when that grief takes hold.

Some of these symptoms may also indicate other health problems. In any case, if you find yourself experiencing symptoms of depression, and especially if they seem to be lingering, it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider.

Holiday depression graphic - Dr. Pingel

Depression and the Holidays: 5 Ways to Cope

To say that I understand how depression and the holidays are linked would be an understatement. There isn’t a day during the holiday season when I don’t think of my mom, my dad, and my grandmothers. I remember every detail of the holidays from my childhood and find myself sad, or even angry, that they are no longer here with me.

Sometimes I feel alone, almost lost, despite being surrounded by support. Look, it’s hard. When you’ve lost a loved one, depression and the holidays feel connected. Many people feel lonely this time of the year. But there are things you can do to reframe this sadness and find joy again. If you’re feeling down this holiday season, here are a few tips to help you cope.

  1. Practice self-care by reframing your situation.

It’s important to try to take care of yourself. Honestly, this is true anytime, not just during the holidays. Follow your daily routine, but also make time for what brings you joy. Do you need to go on a walk? Watch a funny movie? Sit in a bubble bath? Do what works for you. If you’re feeling depressed or stressed this holiday season, remember to do something for yourself, even if it’s just a few minutes each day.

If you find that you’re having difficulty with making time for yourself, you can try my most valuable tool for getting through this season with depressive thoughts: Reframe your situation to a positive one.

Personally, I think about what my kids will tell their kids about the holidays we’re currently spending together. I am now the matriarch. I am now the one who leads the holiday. I create powerful memories for them. This was not easy to do the first few years after losing the other holiday leaders in my life.

So, how did I do it? I saw a Reiki practitioner who helped me realize that we are all still connected, even if we’re no longer physically together. Reiki is a holistic energy treatment that can help you to release negative thoughts and open your heart and mind to positive ones. It helps you move forward from sadness and find joy in memories again. [4] Reiki helped me to find some peace of mind and learn ways I can include my passed loved ones in my current traditions.

I now take the time to chat with my kids about their family that has passed. We often do this while baking cookies together or by decorating the tree with ornaments from my youth. I share these memories with them so that they can now experience what I did in my childhood.

  1. Don’t isolate yourself; reach out.

If you find yourself feeling lonely this holiday season or after (or anytime!), don’t isolate yourself. While we all need “alone time” sometimes, spending too much time alone can actually cause worsening feelings of loneliness. And if you’re grieving, isolation can make the grief feel almost unbearable.

When you’re feeling depressed or grieving deeply, you may not think you want to be around others—or you may assume others won’t want to be around you. However, the opposite is the best “medicine” here.

Reach out to friends or acquaintances, even if it’s just a phone call. Or find some way to get out and be with others. Maybe consider volunteering for a cause or organization you support or attending a local event.

If you’re someone who tends to keep to themselves, this may feel a little uncomfortable. But, trust me, it really can lift your spirits. Maybe consider volunteering at a children’s hospital or helping to serve a holiday meal at a local homeless shelter. This not only helps you rise from depression, but also reminds you that life goes on—and that others need you. It can help give you purpose for the future, which is essential in personal growth from sad times.

Many of you know how much I adore my animals. If you’re also an animal lover, perhaps you might help out at a local animal shelter. Spending time with animals can often be very healing. [5] I believe that one of my dogs was sent to me as a companion after I lost my mom. She always knows exactly what I need emotionally, and it helps me to care for her, and my other animals, as well.

  1. Write and speak.

You don’t have to write the Great American Novel—though you certainly can! However, I find that journaling is always a great way to get thoughts and feelings “out.” Given how strong feelings of depression and loneliness during the holidays often are, this can be a powerful part of your emotional healing journey.

Similar to journaling, writing letters can help—even if you never send them. You might even find it cathartic to write letters to loved ones who have passed. Personally, I find it helpful to speak to my loved ones who have passed. It reminds me that we are all still connected, and that is incredibly comforting to me. Every night before bed, my kids say a prayer to their grandparents and tell them all about their day. It really helps to remind me that those still here are responsible for carrying on legacies.

  1. Turn off social media.

Research actually shows a link between social media consumption and depression. [5] To help lessen feelings of loneliness or holiday blues, you may want to consider avoiding social media platforms.

If you feel lonely, seeing images of others having a good time together may reinforce your loneliness and actually make you feel more isolated.

It’s also important to remember that while it may seem like everyone else is having a great time, you’re not alone. Most people share only their best images on social media, right? Plus, regardless of what’s posted online, many people struggle this time of year with holiday stress, loneliness, and grief over missing loved ones. So, remember, you’re not alone. Which brings me back to the importance of not isolating yourself—make it a point to get out “IRL” (in real life) and spend time with others.

  1. Get help.

While spending time with others and doing things you enjoy are important steps to relieving feelings of sadness and loneliness during the holiday season (or anytime), if you are struggling with major depression or other mental health challenges, please seek out professional help.

If you’ve tried some of the steps listed above and they’re not helping, you also may need more help. Seek out a counselor or therapist or perhaps consider a support group.

If you are having suicidal thoughts—or if you are concerned that a loved one may be at risk of suicide— you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. Free, confidential support is available 24/7.


Key Takeaways

  • Dealing with depression and the holidays can be tough.
  • Self-care is key to managing holiday blues. Do things that bring you joy. Find ways to be with others. Consider volunteering.
  • If you are struggling with clinical depression or other mental health concerns that could put you at risk of danger to yourself or others, please get professional help as soon as possible.


You might also enjoy: Top 4 Breathing Exercises to Relieve Stress

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