15 Biggest Holiday Depression Triggers You Never Even Knew About
Don't let the little things get in the way of what should be a spirited season.
Though some people count down the days, hours, and even minutes until Christmas or Hanukkah, not everyone is such a huge fan of the holiday season. While the appeal of presents, baking cookies, and watching holiday movies by the fire may seem undeniable to some, little things like money worries, family tiffs, and the pressure to make the holidays perfect are enough to turn what should be a joyous time into a dreaded one.
In fact, according to research published in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, the holiday season is significantly associated with both worsening moods and an uptick in alcohol-related deaths, suggesting all that holiday cheer can’t quite make up for the more serious mental health challenges that present for certain individuals during this time of year.
If you’re among the many people who suffers from holiday depression, read on to learn about some of the surprising triggers that might be dampening your holiday cheer.
When things start to get stressful and emotions become harder to handle—basically the definition of the holiday season—many people turn to what is known as “emotional eating” in order to alleviate their overwhelming feelings of anxiety. The problem? Rather than helping, this unhealthy habit actually makes anxiety worse—in fact, according to a study conducted at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, a diet high in saturated fat (like the one most people tend to adopt during the holidays) can actually change a person’s brain, making them more susceptible to fear and anxiety.
And given that the holidays are chock-full of fattening foods like pies, cakes, and cookies that encourage insecurity, emotional eating drives many people past your run-of-the-mill anxiety into the arms of full-blown holiday depression.
Between managing expenses and clearing crowds, shopping for presents is one of the biggest triggers for holiday depression. “Shopping and gift-buying can cause financial and emotional stress and can create a need to manage crowds, traffic, and malls or large stores,” psychologist Anita Sanz explained on Quora. Think you’re alone in finding the shopping process to be a real mood-killer? Think again: according to research conducted by brand advocacy firm Needle, 75 percent of shoppers polled experienced gift-giving stress.
Money—or rather, a lack thereof—has long been associated with many a mental disorder. According to one meta-analysis published in the journal World Psychiatry, there is a “statistically significant positive relationship between income inequality and risk of depression.” But thanks to things like pricey presents, expensive dinners, and holiday party outfits, money woes are particularly present around the holiday season—and more often than not, they will cause depressive episodes that severely damper your holiday cheer.
If money is giving you a bad case of the holiday blues, try keeping a strict budget and sticking to it as you do your holiday shopping. “It’s the thought of the gift that matters—not the price tag,” says Vinay Saranga, M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry.
Though spending time with family is supposed to be fun and stress-free, anyone who’s ever actually gathered around a table with their relatives knows that this is far from the case. “One thing that can trigger holiday depression is family stress, particularly at a time when we’re often spending much more time with family, sometimes including family members you normally wouldn’t choose to spend time with,” says Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and owner of the Behavioral Health and Wellness Center in Massachusetts. If an impending Christmas dinner is the cause of your distress, just remind yourself that, after a few hours of small talk, the torture will be over and you won’t have to see your relatives for at least another year.
“When our lives do not quite meet the standards of a Hallmark commercial, we often feel more the lack of what we do not have rather than gratefulness for what we do have,” says Judith Belmont, MS, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist and author of The Anxiety and Stress Solution Deck. Instead of dwelling on the Christmas presents you should’ve bought, the side dishes you should’ve made, and the Christmas ornaments you should’ve hung, just enjoy spending time with your loved ones and making the most of what you did do—odds are that your holiday depression will melt away like Frosty the Snowman on a warm and sunny day.
Being Far Away From Family and Friends
While being with unpleasant family is a holiday depression trigger for some, for others, it’s not being with family members that sparks feelings of sadness. “Not having family to spend the holidays with or not being able to get to family for the holidays can trigger feelings of sadness and eventually lead to depression,” explains Dr. Chait. If you live too far from your family to head home for the holidays, then make sure to find a group of friends near you with whom you can celebrate and make some new memories—and don’t forget that your family is always a phone call away!
“Many people’s sleep habits change during this time of year as they go out to more parties, stay up later, and get less sleep,” explains Dr. Chait. “These changes in sleep patterns, particularly getting less sleep or less predictable sleep, can make people more vulnerable to feeling depressed or can exacerbate existing depression.”
Attending a holiday party filled to capacity with cutesy couples isn’t exactly ideal for someone who has just gotten out of a serious relationship. However, if you’re recently single and have to make an appearance at a holiday party this year, marital and family therapist Virginia Williamson, LMFT, says that you should “be more invested in yourself rather than in showing everyone that you’re handling singlehood fabulously.” Pretending to be happy is only going to make you even more depressed—and at the end of the day, nobody expects you to bounce back from your break-up overnight.
Striving For Perfection
Though all types of people are vulnerable to holiday depression, perfectionists are hit especially hard by the seasonal sadness. Why? “There’s no such thing as a perfect anything and the holidays are no different,” explains Dr. Saranga. Setting high expectations for yourself to “create the perfect holiday atmosphere or buy the perfect gifts” will only backfire in the end—so if you want to actually enjoy your holidays, then you should just “let go of perfection and let things naturally fall into place.”
The Pressure to Be Jolly
Nobody wants to be that person who’s sulking in the corner while everyone else sings Christmas carols and decks the halls with boughs of holly, but it’s better to be honest about being sad than to pretend to be happy just for everyone else’s sake. “Listen closely to the emotional aspect of yourself and embrace only the traditions that feel comforting to you, which may mean none at all,” says Williamson. “Embark upon the holiday season with clear expectations of yourself, be assertive about your boundaries, and give yourself permission to make your decisions about how much you do, give, and participate in based on your own needs!”
The Loss of a Loved One
Losing someone is never easy, but the sadness stemming from that loss is only amplified during the holiday season—a time when you are supposed to be surrounded by your loved ones. “Holidays are often a tough time for people coping with a significant loss, whether it was a death of a loved one or a breakup of a significant relationship,” says Dr. Chait. “Not having that person around to share what many consider to be a joyous time can increase feelings of sadness.”
Changes in Normal Routines
Those who favor the comfort of a standard daily routine may find that more than just their schedule is thrown off by the holidays. “Another reason we see so much stress and depression this time of year is because we’re thrown from our normal routines,” explains Dr. Saranga. “So many of us travel, have family stay with us, and have all these extra responsibilities, and it’s not always easy to handle.”
“The holidays occur at the end of the year, so people are reflecting on their unrealized goals and fantasies of the year and feel like a failure,” explains Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Michigan. In order to avoid this saddening self-reflection every year, Krawiec recommends steering clear of unattainable goals and instead focusing on “reasonable goals and expectations with achievable objectives—meaning specifically saying what you want to reasonably do each day.”
Between mistletoes and that New Year’s Eve kiss, all too much emphasis is placed on having a partner during the holiday season, making lonely people only feel even worse about their predicament. “Loneliness in general is a risk factor for depression—but during the holidays, feelings of loneliness can be amplified,” explains Dr. Chait.
Alcohol—A Lot of Alcohol
While alcohol may offer a temporary mood-boosting effect, that holiday overconsumption is likely to backfire in the long run. “The holidays are a time of excess—excess drinking, excess eating, excess stress,” explains Belmont. “Excesses in any of these areas can make us feel out of sorts and not comfortable in our own bodies and with ourselves.”
Though overdoing it in any area can trigger depressive episodes, alcohol is especially harmful when it comes to your mood, seeing as “alcohol is a depressant, and the more you drink, the more depressed you get overall.” Instead of overdoing it this holiday season and drinking yourself into a depression, limit yourself to just a few drinks a night—or even better, read up on exactly how much alcohol you should be consuming.
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