What Holiday Depression Really Feels Like
People often joke about the suffocating holiday spirit that seems to hit store shelves earlier and earlier each year. Sometimes, you’ll find a giant plastic Santa in your local drugstore before the turkey has even been carved on Thanksgiving Day. With the Christmas carols, the cheesy Hallmark movies, and the wallet-busting shopping trips comes family togetherness. For many of us, that means listening to relatives we see once or twice a year argue about politics while we silently wish to be somewhere else.
Sure, it’s a bleak picture to paint of the holiday season (there are plenty of wonderful things, too, like gathering with loved ones and showing appreciation through thoughtful gifts). But for many people who have clinical depression, the holidays aren’t just hard to get through—they’re unbearable.
“The holidays are our sickest time of year,” says Sheryl Recinos, MD, who often works with patients who have debilitating diseases. Patients become more depressed about their illnesses around the holidays, she says, because they’re unable to spend the time with loved ones.
Many other people who have depression dread the holidays because holiday to-do lists (buy presents, decorate the house, make holiday cookies for the kids’ party, entertain guests, etc.) can be stressful. “Culturally, we might feel that there’s pressure to do more. The end of November and into December, people have less time for themselves because they’re spending free time doing everything else,” says Amy Alexander, MD, clinical assistant professor at Stanford University’s psychiatry department.
All of the holiday activities leave little time for the self-care that people who have depression rely on to manage their symptoms. Add that stress to emotionally taxing gatherings with family and unrealistic expectations of holiday cheer, and the most joyful time of year can actually be triggering.
Ahead, four women talk about how it really feels to have depression during the holidays, and how they’ve learned to manage their symptoms.
"I'd always played the game of going home and being hunky dory for the holidays."
Last year, Bryanna Burkhart chose to skip out on her family’s traditional Christmas gathering and visit a friend in New York, instead. The thought of pretending to be happy throughout another family holiday was too much; she just couldn’t fake it anymore. “In the past I have always played the game of going home and being hunky dory for the holidays,” she tells Health.
Usually, she’d head home for Christmas and spend the whole time just trying to get through it. She describes the feeling like holding in a sneeze. “You really need to sneeze, but you hold it in,” she says. “You feel better that you didn’t sneeze, but you don’t get that same relief [as if you had let it happen].”
So, Burkhart chose to be more honest about her depression, and to spend last Christmas with a friend who would allow her to feel the full range of her emotions. “I have spent half of my weekend crying in my cupcake pajamas. Heavy. Hurting. And yet, this has been the most honest and loving Christmas that I have ever experienced—ugly crying and deep belly laughs, alike,” Burkhart wrote on Instagram last year.
Now, she tries to be honest about how she’s feeling at all times of the year and will not let herself fall into the trap of “holiday cheer” again.
"I used to dread the parties."
For Sally Pau, the holidays are triggering because they remind her of how little her parents were there for her when she was growing up. Pau was raised mostly by her brother and grandmother because her parents were rarely around, and they were often traveling during the holidays.
Because Christmas was never a special time of year for her as a child, the pressure to feel joyful and happy makes managing her depression more difficult, Pau says. “It makes me feel fake because I have to pretend to be happy about something [when] I'm really not. The holidays just remind me of my difficult past, and seeing all the other families gather together gives me a bitter taste,” she says.
While her family doesn’t get together for the holidays, her boyfriend’s family does. When they first started dating, Pau felt herself putting on a happy face to get through the games, the feast, and the gift-giving. “I used to dread the parties, but slowly as time went by, I started to accept and enjoy them,” she says. She still gets upset sometimes, but she tries not to let her negative thoughts take over.
“I try to keep an open mind and think of the larger picture,” she says. “The holidays are supposed to be a festive, positive time for everyone, but that doesn't mean that it's not OK to feel the way that I do. It's about how I manage my thoughts and how I allow people into my life.”
"I was ashamed because I felt I was letting everyone around me down."
Twenty years ago, Kelly Neff was experiencing a depression so deep she spent several days on her couch, unable to pull herself out of a fog. Yet, she also did her best to hide her depression from her husband and her family. She isolated herself as much as possible: “I was ashamed because I felt I was letting everyone around me down, and I was afraid because I did not understand what was happening to me, so I hid it until I couldn’t anymore. I just wanted to die,” she says.
The holidays made it especially tempting for Neff to cut herself off from family, she says, because there’s a cultural expectation to be “merry and bright” that she couldn’t meet. Yet, isolating herself was a big mistake. “Isolation only makes the darkness darker and the loneliness lonelier,” she says. It wasn’t until she opened up about her depression to her husband that she was able to get counseling and start working out ways to manage her depression.
The holidays are especially difficult for Neff this year because she recently lost her husband, who’d always been a key part of her support system. Now, she’s navigating her first holiday season without him, but in some ways the holidays make this time easier than other times of the year since he passed. Her children are home because it’s the holidays, and they’re helping her stay motivated. “While the holidays are difficult for many reasons this year, I view it as an opportunity. I can choose to face the pain head on with my family and friends by my side, or I can choose to allow darkness to overtake me with loneliness and despair to keep me company,” Neff says. She’s choosing to get through it with her family.
"I'd have to weigh the pain of being alone versus the feeling of being a fraud."
Nita Sweeney has had chronic, recurrent depression for nearly 30 years. While she’s able to manage her symptoms now (partly thanks to a newfound passion for running), she wasn’t always in control of her moods. She remembers being especially upset about how happy everyone expected her to be during the holidays. Depending on how she was feeling on any particular day, she’d either go to a self-deprecating place and judge herself for not feeling happy when everyone else seemed filled with holiday cheer, or she’d get pissed. Why do people expect this every year? We can’t all just fake it, she recalls thinking.
The pressure to fake happiness was especially strong at the large family gatherings she attended every year. “I’m an off-the-scale introvert, so any forced socialization is hard,” she says. Adding depression on top of the stress of forced togetherness wasn't good. For years, Sweeney showed up to the 40-person dinners her sister would host and feign happiness. Then, her depression got to be too much and she couldn’t do it anymore. “I’d either not show up or be passive-aggressive about it,” she says. “I’d have to weigh the pain of being alone (which sometimes wasn’t painful) versus the feeling of being a fraud.”
After learning to manage her depression, she’s able to realize that she has more control over the situation than she used to think. She brings her own car, she and her husband show up and leave when they want to, and she doesn’t worry about any family members who might judge her for leaving early. In fact, she’s trained them to understand that she’s going to do whatever she needs to do for her mental health. “Now my family understands that this is Nita and she’s gonna do her thing. They know that everybody is better off if Nita does her thing, too,” she says.
Still, the holidays are a hard time of year for Sweeney, especially now because this time of year is also the anniversary of a few significant deaths in her family—her father died on January 4 after being sick for months and her mother died toward the end of the year, too. “When you're already prone to going to the dark place, dealing with anniversaries of deaths is difficult,” she says. Not only is she celebrating the holidays without her loved ones, but she’s remembering the ends of their lives, too.
To get through it, Sweeney relies on exercise. “The holidays are a whole lot better if I’m getting that rush,” she says. She even has a holiday-themed run with her running group, where everyone wears ugly holiday sweaters (and some of the men wear Speedos decorated with garland). Other than the garland and the holiday sweaters, though, Sweeney tries to keep her holidays low-key and let it be about the kids in her family. She and her husband don’t even exchange gifts. It’s just less stressful that way.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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