Why Do I Get Depressed at Christmas?

In the words of the one and only Carly Rae Jepsen’s unforgettable tune, “It’s not Christmas until somebody cries.” Even though that particular song will probably put a smile on your face, there are countless other sad Christmas songs to balance out the excess of peppy holiday tunes that bombard us at this time of year. Why is that? Well… despite what we’re told by almost every single media source, Christmas is not “the most wonderful time of the year” for everyone. In fact, the holiday blues are a pretty common phenomenon, so if you’re feeling less than cheerful, you’re not alone.

Holiday depression isn’t officially recognized as its own condition, but many qualified therapists and researchers have observed an uptick in depression, anxiety, and suicide rates at this time of year. There are a number of factors that could contribute to that trend, from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) to the financial strain of the holidays. If you aren't feeling very merry this year but aren’t sure why, check out these reasons you could be having a blue Christmas.

Reasons for Holiday Depression

1. The weather. When the sun goes down before 5 pm and the temperature drops, it’s no surprise that you might be struggling with energy and motivation. Both the dark and the cold present major challenges to any activity other than snuggling in bed, making it tempting to avoid festivities and responsibilities. If you consistently feel a major shift in your mental health around this time of year, you may want to talk to your doctor about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a very real condition related to the changes in seasons.

2. Food and exercise. Starting with Halloween candy and ending with Valentine’s Day chocolates, society spends most of fall and winter selling us on the idea that junk food “doesn’t count” during the holidays. While you should certainly allow yourself to enjoy some treats, be careful to incorporate fruits, veggies, and proteins as well. Nutrition can have a significant impact on our mental health, as can exercise. When it’s cold, or when we’ve been eating cookies, cake, and mashed potatoes, we might not feel like staying on top of our exercise routines, but a shift in activity can also bring your energy levels down.

3. Family. A lot of us are around our families more frequently at this time of year, and that’s a wonderful thing for some. However, you wouldn't be the first person to admit that they get stressed out during family gatherings. That one toxic uncle who always brings up politics or the second cousin who tries to recruit you into her multi-level marketing scheme might mean that you constantly have your guard up when you go to grandmas for the family gift exchange. Pay attention to your stress levels and body tension when you’re around family--that could be one source of your holiday blues.

4. Overscheduling. Finals, gift shopping, getting a picture with Santa, going to the neighborhood light show, working holiday rush shifts, rehearsing for the church Christmas concert, traveling for Thanksgiving, staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, and dressing up for every event… This is not a restful season. Feelings of depression around this time of year can often come from the sheer exhaustion and overwhelm of having too much to do.

5. Financial strain. Giving gifts, traveling, and participating in all the potlucks can get pricey, and for those of us who were already living paycheck to paycheck before the holidays, the extra expenses can feel like a crushing weight on our shoulders. Money is one of the leading stressors for many people, and that only gets worse this time of year.

6. Expectations. From songs and movies to TV ads, we are told in a million ways that we are supposed to be happy at this time of year. Houses should be decorated, food should be decadent and delicious, parties should be glittery and cozy, people should be generous and kind, and you should be the merriest one of them all. That’s a lot of pressure, and those messages make it particularly difficult to admit that maybe you’re feeling sad, tired, or overwhelmed. Christmastime is supposed to look a certain way, according to the media, and failure to meet those expectations, or fear of failure, can be very hard on your mental health.

7. Loneliness. Whether you’re surrounded by friends and family or spending the holiday with only your cat for company, it’s a common time of year to feel alone. Human connection is an important part of mental health, and without its depression and anxiety are no surprise. It’s also the time of year when we very keenly feel the absence of certain people from our festivities, whether it’s your first holiday after a breakup or the tenth year you’ve had to celebrate without a grandparent who’s passed away. 

Self-care During the Holidays

What should you do if you’re feeling down during the holidays this year? Practice self-care! Maybe you’re tired of hearing about self-care and how much you need it, but it truly is the first step to improving your mental health. If you can’t help but think of bubble baths and bon-bons every time you hear the “self-care” term bandied about, we get it. Those things CAN be a part of someone’s self-care practice, but it doesn’t have to be as fancy as that.

Break down what your basic needs are: food, water, shelter, sleep, stability, human connection, etc. Are any of those going unfulfilled right now? Take steps to improve in those areas. That could mean a trip to the grocery store instead of ordering takeout again. It could look like declining an invitation to one or two of the seven parties you’ve been invited to, or it could mean accepting one instead of staying home in your sweatpants. It looks different for everyone, and only you can assess where your life has become overwhelming or burdensome.

Don’t Disconnect

Most importantly, don’t isolate yourself! As tempting as it can be to keep your feelings to yourself, especially if you’re afraid of putting a damper on anyone’s holiday cheer, isolation can make depression and anxiety worse. Talk to a trusted friend or family member about how you’re feeling. You might be surprised by how much it can help to share and by how much most of us relate to a case of holiday depression. If you’re worried about talking to someone you know, don’t hesitate to reach out to TheHopeLine. You’ll be paired with someone who wants to talk to you, sees your worth, and might be able to help you reconnect with the “tidings of great joy” that this time of year represents.

After all, once you get past all that we’ve done as a society to make the Christmas season stressful, at its core, Christmas is about hope and the promise of a future full of grace and mercy through Christ. Just as there are plenty of sad holiday songs, there are also many that proclaim, “joy to the world” and describe that “thrill of hope [as] a weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!” Christ’s birth represents a future with no more tears, and as you take the brave steps to care for yourself while you’re feeling world-weary, you can rest in the knowledge that His love is yours for the taking and that a new, glorious morning is coming. We know depression can make reaching out for help, much less feeling hope, seem like a monumental task, but you’re not alone in this. 

Situational depression is something many people struggle with. Click here for some of the signs and symptoms of situational depression. 

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