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Tips for Coping with Holiday Stress and Depression

The holidays are supposed to be a cheerful time. Yet for many, it’s actually exhausting and stressful. Holiday stress and depression are more common than you might think. A survey by the American Psychological Association, for example, found that 38% of people reported their stress levels went up over the holidays. 

Stress and depression can raise one’s risk for substance abuse, as well as physical and mental illness. In this article, we’ll go over some tips for managing holiday stress and depression and when to see a depression or anxiety therapist.  

If you are dealing with stress or coping with depression this holiday season, read on. 

What Is Holiday Stress and Depression?

Holiday stress and depression are feelings of increased stress and depression reported during the holidays. 

While on its face this may be surprising – why would someone feel bad during such a joyful time of the year? – in fact, it’s quite common. For many people, the holidays can be a period of painful reflection, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. 

There are a couple of reasons why this might occur: 

Seasonal Depression 

Perhaps one of the biggest causes of holiday depression, particularly for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, is seasonal depression.  

Seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of depression brought on by a lack of sunlight in the winter months. This is because sunlight is linked to the production of serotonin – the neurotransmitter associated with well-being – as well as Vitamin D, which has also been associated with mood. A lack of sunlight can also worsen preexisting depressive symptoms. 

What You Can Do About It 

According to the National Institute on Mental Health SAD can be treated through light therapy, Vitamin D supplementation, antidepressant medications, psychotherapy, or some combination thereof. 

Stress Over Gift Giving

Perhaps one reason you are dealing with stress this holiday season is over the perceived need to buy Christmas gifts. Buying gifts can be expensive and time-consuming. Gift-giving can also be stressful if you fear that your gift will be seen as inadequate.  

If you are dealing with stress over what to buy this holiday season, just know you’re not alone. Polls show more than six out of every ten Americans feel stressed when it comes to selecting the right gift for their loved ones. 

What You Can Do About It 

If you are feeling stressed about giving gifts for the holidays, you can take certain steps to reduce your stress. 

First, make a budget for gifts and stick to it. Prioritize those people that are closest to you and give them the most expensive gifts. For everyone else, consider simpler, more affordable gifts. 

Second, you and your family can agree to not give gifts this year and instead come together for more meaningful activities. This could include playing board games or watching movies indoors, or just enjoying quality time together. 

You can also consider starting a new tradition such as White Elephant. White Elephant is a holiday gift-swapping game where each participant brings one present that can be appropriate for just about anyone. This helps take some of the pressure off those who worry that they won’t choose the ideal gift. 

Holiday Family Gathering

By the opposite token, maybe the reason you are feeling holiday stress and depression isn’t due to what gifts to get your family members, but over having to spend time with them at all. A holiday family gathering can be difficult during recovery due to a wide range of reasons.

Perhaps this is due to differing values, clashing communication styles, or negative feelings based on past experiences. Whatever the reason is, there are a variety of things you can do to minimize stress from family over the coming holidays. 

What You Can Do About It 

If family stress is something you fear during the holidays, there are a couple of things you can do about it. If family gatherings cause you anxiety, it’s important to set boundaries. You don’t need to engage in activities or conversations you don’t want to. You also don’t need to stay in a situation that is making you feel uncomfortable. 

In addition, limit how much time you spend with family members who bring you down. Prioritize quality time with family and friends who make you happy and lift your spirits.  

You can also practice mindfulness. Sometimes, we have to spend time with people who annoy us. We can’t always avoid it, nor express our displeasure at their annoying behavior. By practicing mindfulness, you can be more aware of when negative emotions are increasing, and you can take the appropriate actions to reduce those feelings.

Finally, consider improving your communication skills. It’s possible that the communication issues with your family members aren’t exclusively the fault of that member. While you can’t force someone else to do something, you can always take steps to improve yourself. This could include things like practicing active listening, being mindful of your body language, assuming positive intent in what the other person says, and being more assertive and self-confident. 

Being Alone On Christmas

Another source of holiday stress and depression may occur because you are alone on Christmas. This can be especially hard if you have lost a loved one, or if you can’t be with close friends or family this time of year for whatever reason. 

What You Can Do About It 

If you’re feeling lonely on Christmas, find ways to distract yourself. You could take advantage of the time off and watch movies or play video games, or perhaps throw yourself into a hobby like writing or drawing. 

You could also try and connect with friends or family members even if they are not physically present. Technology has radically shrunk the world, with the ability to talk to anyone, even face-to-face, as apps like FaceTime are a call away.

If one of your loved ones is no longer with you, consider visiting their grave to pay respects, or celebrate their memory in some way. Over time, these traditions can become comforting and may help to reduce your holiday blues. 

Finally, you can create your own Christmas traditions. You don’t need to do something big; it could be something small like taking a walk around your neighborhood to admire the holiday lights or watching your favorite movie. 

Can Stress and Anxiety Cause Substance Abuse? 

Holiday stress and anxiety are common experiences for many individuals, and when left unmanaged, they can lead to substance abuse.  

Many people turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with overwhelming feelings of stress or anxiety, and this can lead to the development of addiction over time. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 46 million Americans met the DSM-V criteria for a substance use disorder (SUD) in 2021, with 1 in 3 adults having both an SUD and a mental illness at the same time. 

This co-occurrence can be attributed to the fact that those dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of self-medicating their symptoms. Substance abuse can lead to a cycle of exacerbated mental illness, as individuals become dependent on drugs or alcohol to manage their emotions. 

This cycle can be difficult to break, which is why seeking treatment for both anxiety and substance abuse is important. Various forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can provide healthy ways of managing holiday stress and coping with depression. 

Can Therapy Help With Holiday Stress?

If you consistently find getting through the holidays to be a challenge, it may be time to seek professional help. South Coast Behavioral Health offers a variety of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs to treat anxiety and depression. Our nationally-accredited treatment approach combines evidence-based therapies like CBT with medication management services for rapid stress or depression relief. 

If you or a loved one are coping with depression or anxiety this holiday season, know that there is help: contact us today at 866-881-1184. Our highly credentialed staff is available day and night, 24/7 to take your call.