The holidays offer plenty of reasons to be stressed out and anxious — the gifts you haven’t wrapped, the pile of cookie exchange invites, the office parties. But for many, the biggest source of holiday stress is family — the family dinner, the obligations, and the burden of family tradition. And if you’re fighting clinical depression, or have had depression in the past, the holiday stress can be a trigger for more serious problems.
“There’s this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free,” says Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “That’s not the case. Family relationships are complicated. But that’s doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely.”
With holiday family reunions looming in your calendar, what are some ways that you can prepare yourself and cope better this season? We turned to the experts for some tips on beating holiday stress and anxiety.
What Causes Holiday Stress?
First, ask yourself this: What about the holidays gets you down? Once you cut through the vague sense of dread about family gatherings and identify specific problems, you can deal with them directly. For many people, holiday stress is triggered by:
- Unhappy memories. Going home for the holidays naturally makes people remember old times, but for you the memories may be more bitter than sweet. “During the holidays, a lot of childhood memories come back,” says Duckworth, who is also an assistant professor at Harvard University Medical School. “You may find yourself dwelling on what was inadequate about your childhood and what was missing.” If you associate the holidays with a bad time in your life — the loss of a loved one, a previous depression — this time of year will naturally bring those memories back.
- Toxic relatives. Holidays can put you in the same room with relatives you avoid the rest of the year. People struggling with depression may face stigma, too. “Some relatives don’t really believe you’re depressed,” says Gloria Pope, director of advocacy and public policy at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Chicago. “They think you’re just lazy, or that it’s all in your head. It can be really hurtful.”
- What’s changed. The holidays can highlight everything that’s changed in your lives — a divorce, a death in the family, a son who’s making his first trip back home after starting college. Any of these can really unsettle a gathering and add holiday stress.
- What’s stayed the same. For others, it’s the monotonous sameness of family holiday gatherings that depresses them — the same faces, the same jokes, the same food on the same china plates.
- Lowered defenses. During the holiday season, you’re more likely to be stressed out by obligations and errands. It’s cold and flu season and your immune system is under assault. It’s getting dark earlier each day. You’re eating worse, sleeping less, and drinking more. By the time the family gathering rolls around, you’re worn out, tense, and fragile. The holiday stress makes it harder to cope with your family than it might be at other times of the year.
Controlling Holiday Stress
Experts say that the holidays can make people feel out of control. We feel at the mercy of our relatives or steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. But you have a say. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you.
For instance, you may find the family obligations of the holidays overwhelming. You have to make the rum balls according to your grandmother’s recipe, even though you personally find them inedible. You have to go over to your aunt’s for the holiday dinner, even though she always drinks too much, makes a scene, and freaks out your kids. You have to leave a poinsettia on your grandfather’s grave, even though it’s three hours and two states away. You don’t exactly want to do any of these things. You just have to.
Duckworth encourages people to stop right there. Do you really have to?
“Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing things that make me miserable?’” Duckworth tells WebMD. “Think about the reasons.” He suggests that you draw up a list of reasons why you engage in these holiday traditions, and then a list of reasons why you shouldn’t. Just making a simple pro and con list will remind you that you do have a choice.
Changing Your Outlook
The next step is to challenge some of your assumptions. If you enjoyed the holidays differently this year, what would happen? What if you didn’t go to your aunt’s for dinner? What if you didn’t bring the poinsettias to your grandfather’s grave?
Your gut feeling might be: Calamity! Disaster! But get past that initial reaction. Think about what would really happen. Maybe your aunt would be annoyed. Is that really such a big deal? Could you make it up to her later with a brunch in February? Instead of trekking to your grandfather’s grave, could you honor him in a different way — lighting a candle or saying a prayer?
The key is to be conscious about what you’re doing. This holiday season, don’t unthinkingly do things the same way just because that’s how you always do them. If the old holiday traditions aren’t working, if they’re not making you happy and causing holiday stress, it’s time to do something different.
Tips for Beating Holiday Stress
Once you’ve taken a clear look at the holidays — about what works and what doesn’t — it’s time to make some changes. Focus on the holiday stresses that you can control. That includes making different plans and changing your responses to situations. Here are four key don’ts for the holidays.
- Don’t do the same old thing. If the usual family gathering is causing holiday stress, try something else. If you’re too overwhelmed to host, discuss other possibilities with family members. Maybe a sibling could have the dinner this year.
- Don’t expect miracles. If your holiday anxiety stems from a deeper history of family conflict, don’t expect that you’ll be able to resolve any big underlying issues now. Sure, it’s supposed to be a season of forgiveness and good will. But in the midst of a hectic holiday season, you can’t pin your hopes on leading family members to big emotional breakthroughs. You may be better off focusing on your own state of mind and confronting difficult issues during a less volatile time of year.
- Don’t overdo it. To reduce holiday stress, you have to pace yourself. Long before the family gatherings actually happen, decide on some limits and stick to them. Stay one or two nights at your parents’ house instead of three or four. Plan to drop by the holiday party for a couple of hours instead of staying all night.
- Don’t worry about how things should be. “There’s a lot of cultural pressure during the holidays,” says Duckworth. “We tend to compare ourselves with these idealized notions of perfect families and perfect holidays.” But in fact, most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings — they have family tension, melancholy, and dry turkey too. If you have negative feelings, don’t try to deny them. Remember that there’s nothing wrong or shameful or unusual about feeling down during the holidays.
Depression During the Holidays: Getting Help
For many people battling holiday stress, changing expectations and behavior can make a big difference. But not always. David Dunner, MD, director of the Center for Anxiety and Depression in Mercer Island, Wash., says that sometimes the apparent connections between the holidays and depression may just be coincidental.
“I tend to take a fairly agnostic approach toward the cause of depression because I’m never sure what it really is,” says Dunner. “Even though it might seem like that the holiday trip to Cleveland to see family is what’s making you feel down, it could have nothing to do with it.” Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a medical condition, a drug side effect, or something else entirely could be the real culprit.
Dunner also worries that some people may write off signs of serious depression as mere holiday stress. It’s unwise — even dangerous — to ignore depression symptoms for weeks or months in the hopes that they’ll just disappear come January.
So while holiday stress may be seasonal, depression can be year-round. If your holiday anxiety seems severe or is interfering with your job or home life, talk to your doctor or to a counselor.