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How to Avoid Common Holiday Depression Triggers

8 min read

By Catherine Roberts

Reviewed by Greg Dorter, RP

Many people suffer with stress, anxiety, and depression during the winter holidays. The truth is holiday cheer isn’t guaranteed just because it’s Christmas. There are several different triggers that can cause a storm of negativity during the holidays—from money stress to family stress, and from pressure and unmet expectations to loneliness.

For some people, depression around the holidays might seem unavoidable, but with a little planning and extra foresight, there are many ways to survive this time of year and avoid those common depression triggers. If you’re prone to depression over the holidays, here some common negative hazards to avoid…

Trim Your Obligations

While you’re trimming the halls with holly and mistletoe, it’s a good time to remember that it’s alright for you to say no. That means you don’t have to feel guilty and obligated to do it all. You even have the permission to celebrate in your PJ’s in the comfort of your own home, no matter what your in-laws say.

For instance, Pauline Wallin, PhD, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania-based author and clinical psychologist, says to give yourself permission to sit out holiday soirees and gatherings that are just too stressful. You can also limit your time at events to make an appearance, but duck out before anxiety sets in.

Get More Sleep

With all the holiday planning, it’s no wonder many of us are short on sleep over the holidays. Last minute baking, cooking, shopping, wrapping, and etc., can no doubt eat into your sleep schedule.

Research from the National Sleep Foundation identifies a clear link between sleep loss and depression, but that relationship is a two-way street. While sleep loss can cause depression—persistent sleep loss can lead to feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, apathy, and depression. To combat, try to establish a regular sleeping schedule where you go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time daily, even during the holiday rush.

Say No to Family Drama

You’re definitely not alone if bringing the family together over the holidays results in tons of conflict and drama. However, you don’t have to take part in the chaos, according to Jeffrey Greeson, PhD and assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, in Durham, North Carolina.

Go into family gatherings armed with a means to shut down those who want to stir up conflict. If the pot is stirred by Uncle Jimmy, just say, “You have a right to your opinion, but now’s not the time to talk about it.” (Here are some more Ways to Alleviate the Stress of the Family Holiday Season).

Allow Yourself to Grieve

Many folks will experience the loss of a loved one during the holiday season, but grieving that loss isn’t something you can (or should) put on hold until Christmas and New Year’s Eve are over.

Mourning a loved one, a lost relationship, and even the death of a pet can make us feel hopeless, angry, cynical, and guilty as the holidays approach. As humans we need to feel to heal, so don’t refrain from reaching out to loved ones, take time for yourself, talk about your feelings, and join a support group.

Get Real with Expectations

Recall your favorite holiday movie where the family felt the true meaning of Christmas…and the snow fell and the stars twinkled, all the little children danced with all the winter woodland creatures? Yeah, that was fake. Totally Hollywood fake.

It’s often the pressure we inflict on ourselves to have the perfect holiday that makes it a depressing let down. So do your expectations a favor. Get real with more simple shopping, wrapping, and decorating, and try to look around and be grateful for the genuine blessings in your life.

Give a Little Self-Care

During the holidays we’re often pressured to focus on others, so much that caring for ourselves is forgotten among all the shopping, baking, visiting, hosting, and gifting for everyone else.

Boston-based psychiatrist and author of The Emotional Calendar: Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled, and in Control of Your Life, Dr. John Sharp, MD, reminds us to treat ourselves by taking time out when we need it for rest and self care during the winter holidays. “Figure out what [restorative routines] will help you get through the holidays and make them a priority,” he says.

Accept Help From Others

A lot of people struggle to accept help from others, especially if they feel like they are the nurturers of their family or friends group. They often take on the responsibility of making others happy, but forget to focus on themselves. Not only that, but they’re also more inclined to take on too much. The holidays are a busy time, especially for people who are hosting family gatherings, parties, or other social events. It tends to pile on quickly as we try to jam so much into a few short weeks.

To avoid wearing yourself down and landing in a slump around Christmas, don’t be afraid to accept help from others. Many people instinctively say “no” when a friend or family member offers to do something, but this year, try saying “yes.” When we’re feeling down and depressed we often push people away, but this will only make things worse. When people offer support — take it.

Prioritize Exercise

For most people, December is the busiest time of year. And let’s face it, when we’re busy, the first thing that tends to fall to the back burner is exercise. Even though this is a common mistake made by most people, it’s actually counterproductive! Exercise, whether it be walking, running, yoga, or just eating healthy home cooked meals, all of this is what keeps us happy and healthy.

“The more stress we are under, the less time we feel like we have, and the more irritated our mood, the more we need to continue exercising,” says Jeffrey Greeson, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine to “Get out and do something; it helps use those calories from rich, fatty, sugary holiday foods.”

Since exercise has been shown to improve mood, encourages people to do at least 35-minutes of exercise five times a week. It doesn’t have to be intense. It could even be a brisk walk or a yoga class over lunch during the work week.

Get Outside

You’ve probably already noticed that your mood is a lot better on days when the sun is shining. For people who live in areas of the world where the winters are long, cold, dark and dreary, they are more prone to seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD. This disorder is a result of lack of sun exposure, says John Sharp, MD, a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston to Some symptoms associated with SAD are constant fatigue and being easily irritable.

Since the holidays fall at the end of December, a time of year that tends to be cold and snowy, some people may find themselves feeling a little down. If this is the case and you can’t really put a finger on what might be bothering you, it could have to do with the weather. To make sure that you’re not affected by SAD, be sure to go outside as much as possible, especially on those special days when the sun is shining. It’ll give you a much needed boost in energy and improve your mood.

Avoid Leaning on Food and Alcohol

While the holidays are often consumed with lots of food and alcohol, try to avoid using these as a way to cope with any feelings of sadness. Many people struggle with using alcohol and food as a way to comfort themselves when they are feeling down. Not only is this unhealthy for the body, but it’s also a short term solution that doesn’t solve anything.

What most people don’t realize is that it often makes things worse. The Huffington Post notes that eating poorly and drinking heavily has been known to worsen the symptoms of anxiety and depression. So, if you know you’re already feeling a little down this holiday season, make the effort to avoid drinking or limit your consumption as much as possible.

Don’t Isolate Yourself

People who are struggling with depression or anxiety tend to isolate themselves because they don’t have the energy to deal with others and they don’t want their friends and family to see them in such a vulnerable state. The problem is that social isolation only makes depression worse. It’s a vicious cycle because isolation is a risk factor for depression, but when you’re depressed you don’t feel like socializing or leaving the house.

Isolation is often made worse if you live far away from friends and family. You’re not surrounded by loved ones who would normally notice when something seems off about you. When you’re dealing with depression, it’s hard to make outside social connections, so you’re often left alone to deal with your depression. To avoid being triggered by isolation, look for ways to connect with others. If this means investing in a flight home for the holidays, do it. If that’s not an option, turn to co-workers or friends who may be able to offer some support. You could host a holiday get-together in your own home and invite some of these local acquaintances.

Another option is to reach out to any local resources. Seek out counselling, take up some volunteer opportunities. Volunteering is not only a good cause for others, but it will also give you a reason to get out of the house and provide the opportunity to interact with others. Most importantly, open up. Don’t let pride get in the way of reaching out to a friend to let them know how you’re feeling. If they’re a good friend, they would be more than happy to help.

The Meaning Behind Christmas…

We have the same conversation every year when Christmas rolls around which asks: are we putting too much emphasis on material gifts? It’s not uncommon for people to become so wrapped up (quite literally) in buying gifts for others that we forget what Christmas is all about. It’s an age old conversation that loops around every year. Even cult classics like the tale of the Grinch have tackled it! There’s a reason it is constantly brought up, it’s important.

To help lift your spirits this Christmas, take a moment to sit back and focus on what this holiday is all about. It’s about being with family and friends. Spreading cheer and laughter. It’s not about material things. Don’t let yourself get stressed running to and from the mall, trying to find the perfect gift for every person on your list. Invest all of that energy in slowing down and enjoying the holidays with your loved ones.

RP, Registered Psychotherapist

Greg has a master's degree in counselling psychology and is a registered psychotherapist in Ontario where he's been practicing with individuals and couples for 15 years. He specializes in evidence-based treatments such as CBT and mindfulness, and produces a variety of online self-help content you can find on ( and twitter (@GregDorter).

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