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December 21, 2013
by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

Coping with Depression During the Holidays

December 21, 2013 09:00 by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

Most people believe that the rate of depression makes a sharp rise during the holiday season. However, research shows that depression and suicide rates are actually higher at other times of the year. This does not mean that millions of people are not depressed during the holidays – they are.

Those who have lost loved ones or are experiencing a crisis or transition of some sort may find their dark mood becomes even darker during the holidays. Feelings of loneliness, loss and grief are amplified during the holidays. Media hype and stereotypes make it even more difficult to cope with these feelings.

Seasonal affective disorder is a major depressive episode that is usually triggered by the darker, shorter days in the fall then lifts in the spring/summer. Those who suffer from this condition certainly see a worsening of symptoms in the winter, but this is not specifically related to the holidays. However, people who are prone to depression may be more easily triggered by losses and anniversary grief reactions during the holidays.   

Examine Your Thinking About the Holidays

As alluded to above, the media and other influences (that includes our own previous life experiences) would have us believe that people everywhere are cuddling in front of a roaring fireplace singing carols and relishing the joys of the season. This may be true for some, but certainly not for everyone.

These stereotypes create irrational beliefs that lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment for many, if not most, of us. In many cases, this can lead to feelings of sadness and depression. Many professionals believe that our thoughts and beliefs dictate our feelings. If that is true, the way to manage your feelings is by taking charge of your thoughts, which often requires challenging old beliefs.

Expectations that are based on what may have been true for you in the past need to be challenged and reevaluated. As our lives and circumstances change, our thinking may also need to change. For example:

Thoughts: Families should be together for the holidays. (or) Our family should have a perfect holiday dinner with everyone present and getting along.

Reality: Your family is unable to be together for the holidays. (or) You are unable to afford a large dinner for the family this year.

Challenge Old Thoughts: Is this really true? Is it only possible to have a good time during the holidays if the whole family is together (or) if the family has the traditional holiday dinner? Are there any exceptions to that? What are some examples of families who are separated during the holidays yet still have a good time?

Name as many exceptions to this thinking as possible. Based on this information, is it possible that you can have a decent holiday experience even if everyone isn’t there (or) you don’t have the traditional holiday dinner together? If so, come up with alternate plans that support your reality.

New thoughts: It is wonderful to be with family during the holidays, but it isn’t always possible. (or) A large holiday dinner is nice when we can make it happen, but we are going to try a potluck dinner this year that will be just as good and less work.

Focus your energy on creating the best holiday possible given your current reality. When old thoughts creep in (and they will), replace them with the new thoughts.

My extended family had to collectively make some changes to our usual over-giving of gifts a few years ago when the recession hit some of us harder than others. Rather than giving everyone a gift, we decided to draw names and put a $100 limit on the gift giving. This was an adjustment, but we continue to do it five years later. The holidays are now more about people than gifts, and we are grateful to be together with those who can make it.  

Allow Yourself to Feel Without Judgment

Honor your feelings without judging them – this may sound like a contradiction, but another school of thought is mindfulness. Mindfulness is about observing your feelings and thoughts without attaching to them. One who is mindful realizes s/he is feeling sad, labels the feeling as sadness and lets it pass or simply sits with the feeling until it passes. There is not any resistance of the feeling, nor is there any judgment about whether the feeling is right or wrong – it simply is what it is.

This is very different from challenging the validity of your thoughts that lead to feeling sad. However you will find that once you remove the judgment (depression is bad – I should not feel this way) and accept feelings for what they are, transient states that pass if we don’t dwell on them, feelings may not be as overwhelming.

The exception to this is clinical depression that is due to a chemical imbalance, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder or other major mental health conditions. These are more serious forms of depression that last longer than two weeks and usually require medication and/or other professional interventions. Talk to your medical provider or therapist if you have depression that lingers more than two weeks, impacts your sleeping or eating patterns or involves thoughts of death or suicide. Suicidal thoughts should be addressed immediately.

Other Helpful Ways to Fight Depression During the Holidays

·         Get involved in the community – if you are alone for the holidays, in a new area or otherwise disconnected it might help you to get involved in a community activity. Many people spend their holidays volunteering in a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, children’s shelter, schools, community events, etc.

·         Make plans – isolation leads to depression for those who are prone to depression, especially during the holidays. Even if you can’t be with your family or loved ones, consider other ways to connect with people. Accept invitations to join friends or co-workers. Some refuse these offers thinking the offer is extended out of pity – that is often a mistake unless it is simply someone you don’t want to spend time with.

Don’t allow your depression to keep you isolated, or your isolation to lead to depression. One of my best Thanksgiving holidays was spent with a friend and her parents one year when I was unable to travel to be with my family. I was expecting a long, depressing weekend, but found instead a nice dinner and lots of stimulating conversation with people I am still in touch with 15 years later.

·         Use technology to connect with those you usually spend the holidays with – Skype and other video conferencing services can be quite useful. I was unable to attend my niece’s wedding a year ago, so my brother-in-law connected with me on his tablet via Skype and I watched the ceremony in my living room 1600 miles away. I was still sad that I could not be there, but I felt better than if I had missed everything. They also recorded the ceremony, so I was able to see it again later.


Goldsmith, Barton. "10 Tools for Dealing with Holiday Depression and Stress." Psycholody Today. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

Knaus, Bill. "Addressing The Holiday Blues And Depression." REBT Network. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

Rudis, Jacquelyn. "True or False: Depression and Suicide Rates Rise During the Holiday Season." Beth Israel Deaconess Teaching Hospital. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

About the Author

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

I offer solution-focused counseling to people in Colorado and Wyoming from the comfort of your own home via teleconference or telephone.

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW can be found at
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