For people with major depression, the holiday season can present special challenges as you struggle to balance social, practical, and emotional needs. By learning to say no, meeting your social needs in healthy ways, avoiding alcohol, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and remembering to get some sun, you can help yourself maintain your balance. However, the most important thing you can do to keep yourself safe and healthy is to seek treatment to help you find relief from symptoms and create lasting recovery.
The holiday season is supposed to be the most joyful time of year, a time when we gather with our loved ones to participate in cultural and family traditions, share food and laughter, and celebrate the coming of the new year. But for many, the holiday season brings with it not merriment, but stress, sadness, and loneliness. For some, it’s the financial burden of hosting parties, travelling, and buying gifts. For others, it’s having to face conflict-ridden interactions with family members. The absence of loved ones can become particularly pronounced at this time of year and elicit a deep sense of mourning. Others feel a sense of inadequacy as they fail to live up to grand expectations of holiday perfection.
But while the holidays evoke complex emotions in many, they can be particularly difficult for people struggling with major depression. Although the oft-circulated idea that suicides increase dramatically at this time of year is a myth, it is true that the season of joy and good tidings can introduce overwhelming stressors in the lives of people who are already psychologically vulnerable. By creating a solid self-care plan for the holiday season, you can make sure you nurture yourself through this potentially vulnerable time and set up the support you need to stay healthy and safe.
Learn to Say No
The holidays can be a demanding time. Many people with major depression struggle with functionality on the best of days, and the socializing, shopping, decorating, and planning that so often walk hand-in-hand with the holiday season can be draining. “[One of the things] that makes it so hard to be depressed during the holidays is that doing holidays right requires organization,” writes Deborah Grey, a blogger who writes about her experiences with depression. “If you’re depressed you’re so far from having those capabilities.” Trying to stay on top of everything you “should” be doing can add unnecessary stress that increases instability and threatens your mental health further, even if you are generally high-functioning.
Let go of “should”s and listen to your own needs. Weigh the costs and benefits of participating in holiday activities, consider the impact on your wellbeing, and learn when to say no. Throwing a holiday party might be fun, but if the stress of organizing it is going to have a negative impact on your mental health, let someone else take on the hosting duties. Maybe this year you don’t have to send out the Christmas letter, find the perfect gifts for everyone, or prepare the most elaborate holiday feast. Instead, keep things simple. Make sure you don’t over-schedule yourself or over-extend your emotional and physical resources.
Meet Your Social Needs in Healthy Ways
For many people, the holidays mean carrying the weight of unwanted social obligations, whether it’s Christmas dinner with unsupportive family members or work parties you’d rather avoid. Even just the thought of being asked, “How are you?” by a well-meaning relative might be stressful, and having to face someone you don’t get along with can feel unbearable.
If you want to attend social events, prepare some answers ahead of time to head off uncomfortable situations; if you do not want to disclose your mental health struggles to relatives, redirect the conversation. If you think conflicts might arise, Dr. Jeffrey Greeson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University of Medicine, suggests preparing “a neutral response, such as, ‘Let’s talk about that another time,” or, “I can see how you feel that way.” If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a break—go for a walk, escape to the kitchen, or play with pets. Above all, remember that you do not have to accept every invitation or attend every event; if a situation is simply going to be too much for you to handle, politely decline.
Of course, you also don’t want to isolate yourself. Loneliness can feel particularly acute during the holiday season, and positive forms of social contact can help buoy your emotions. Reach out to people you love and trust. Make low-stress plans with people who will nourish your spirit, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. If you do not have close relationships or if you need extra support, finding a peer support group can give you a safe place to express yourself and forge meaningful connections with other people. Some support groups will organize special holiday events as well, giving you the opportunity to participate in festivities with people who understand what you are going through.
The holidays often present plenty of opportunities for drinking—from eggnog to mulled wine, drinking is deeply integrated into holiday festivities. If you have major depression, however, alcohol can aggravate your condition and interfere with any medications you may be taking. Limit your intake or avoid it altogether. Don’t be worried about appearing rude or awkward if you decline a drink, and remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation. A simple, “No thanks,” or, “I’m not drinking tonight,” is typically all that is needed. If you are in addiction recovery, it is essential to ensure you have the supports you need to stay sober during this time.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
When you suffer from major depression, everyday lifestyle habits take on magnified importance. Eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and staying active can all help regulate your mood and promote emotional wellness. Of course, major depression itself can interfere with your motivation and ability to do these things and the holiday seasons can make it even more difficult.
If you have already implemented a self-care plan that includes diet, sleep, and exercise, make sure you stick to it during the holidays. If you struggle with these things, now is a good time to establish positive habits and do what you can to create balance. Leave the party early to ensure you get a good night’s rest. Fit some vegetables in between holiday sweets. Make your yoga class a non-negotiable. Whatever you do, make sure that you carve out some time for yourself and your needs; don’t let the busy holiday season interfere with your ability to look after yourself.
Get Some Sun
One of the reasons some people with major depression experience a worsening of symptoms during the holiday season has nothing to do with the holidays at all, but with the season itself. Reduced exposure to sunlight can interfere with your brain’s normal activity and intensify feelings of depression. In some cases, this can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). However, even people who don’t have SAD can be impacted in less severe forms.
Because sunlight plays such a vital role in emotional wellbeing, make sure you get as much sun as possible even in the darkness of winter. Take a walk on your lunch hour, go for a hike on the weekend, and do your holiday shopping in town instead of online or at an indoor mall. If you struggle to get enough sun or if your outdoor excursions aren’t enough, consider investing in a specialized light box designed to simulate the effects of the sun. Of course, the winter is also a great time to travel to a warm, sunny destination where you can devote yourself to relaxation while avoiding the hustle and bustle of Christmas at home.
While self-care strategies can help you minimize the impact of holiday stress, they aren’t a cure for major depression. If you haven’t yet sought professional help, now is the time to so. Ask your doctor or a trusted friend for a referral to a good treatment provider. If you are already in treatment and are still having symptoms—or if your symptoms are so severe that you do not think outpatient treatment will be enough—a residential treatment program may be the best choice.
In residential treatment programs, you have the time and space to concentrate fully on your recovery. Expert clinicians will tailor a treatment plan to your unique needs, ensuring that you engage in a mix of individual, group, and holistic therapies tailored to your needs. In a warm, inclusive environment, you can explore the roots of your depression and develop the skills you need to move toward psychological wellness. At the same time, your psychiatrist will work with you to develop an effective and well-tolerated medication plan, giving you the relief you need to more fully participate in psychotherapeutic and holistic modalities. If you would like, your loved ones can also be a part of your treatment experience by participating in family and couples counseling, giving you space to gain a deeper understanding of each other and forge stronger bonds.
The holidays can bring a lot of difficult feelings to the surface, especially if you suffer from a mental health disorder like major depression. Listen to your needs and honor them. Accept imperfection. Treat yourself with love, kindness, and forgiveness. And use this as an opportunity to take meaningful steps toward recovery.
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