Keep Your Days Merry and Bright: Tips for Dealing with Family and Depression During the Holidays

by Stephanie Dodaro

It seems that as soon as we put away our Halloween costumes, we’re inundated by a steady stream of holiday ads and social media posts featuring joyous people shopping for gifts or celebrating with loved ones. For many, these idyllic images are a sharp contrast to family gatherings fraught with difficult family fighting during the holidaysrelatives or unresolved conflicts. With high expectations for fun and meaningful connections during the holidays, along with the financial pressures of shopping and travel, it’s not surprising that family get-togethers are often cited as the biggest source of seasonal stress. If you’re prone to or are experiencing clinical depression, it’s important to take steps to ease the strain of the holiday season and prevent a depressive episode or worsening of symptoms.

Family can provide a unique sense of belonging and comfort, and the holidays give us the opportunity to get together with relatives to eat, drink, and be merry. However, parties and dinners can also put you in the same room with disagreeable family members, trigger unhappy memories, and bring up old arguments. If you’re going through personal difficulties such as divorce, death of a loved one, or loneliness, you may find that stressful family gatherings bring you down even further. However, there are many practical steps you can take to help make your family time more enjoyable:

  • Plan ahead. The average American spends 42 hours on holiday activities, including shopping travel, and events. With some advance planning you can prioritize events, avoid overbooking, and make sure you have some down time.
  • Limit time spent in difficult situations. If there’s an unreasonable or unruly family member that causes you excessive stress, plan to limit your time at events where he or she is sure to make an appearance.
  • Agree to a family truce. If old arguments resurface, make plans to talk about your conflict after the holidays wind down.
  • Have compassion for yourself and others. Try to understand where difficult family members are coming from. Remember that most people are just trying to get love or validation, even if they come off as insulting or narcissistic. If nothing else, practicing compassion for others will reduce your anger and frustration, and help you practice going easier on yourself.
  • Limit gifts and plan low-cost outings. Steer yourself away from overbuying and the time suck of finding just the right presents. Instead, find ways to spend valuable time with the people you love, like baking, taking walks or going window shopping.
  • Honor your emotions. If you’re down, remember that the holidays don’t take away feelings of loneliness, sadness, or grief for anyone. Negative emotions are normal and let us know when relationships or issues in our lives need attention. Focus on small, concrete steps you can take, each day, to feel better.
  • Find new opportunities to connect. If you don’t have family around or find yourself with free time on your hands, look for volunteer opportunities or social functions. Not only will you lift yourself out of your usual routine, you’ll make new connections, feel good about helping others, and broaden your support system.

If you find that the steps you’re taking to relieve stress aren’t working or you don’t have the energy to help yourself, you might be experiencing more than the holiday blues. Signs of depression can include constant anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, little interest or pleasure in doing things, or thoughts of hurting yourself. If you’ve had these symptoms for more than two weeks, you may be experiencing a depressive episode. While environmental factors like financial stress or loss of a loved one can trigger a depressive episode, depression is a physical illness and the negative feelings that accompany it can’t be reasoned away or stopped by force of will. Please don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Your health care provider may recommend attending a support group or seeing a psychologist for counseling sessions. If you’re experiencing more debilitating or longstanding symptoms, your doctor may refer you to a psychiatrist, who’ll be able to prescribe medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs for short- or long-term use.

Patients with severe or treatment-resistant depression also have the option of TMS therapy, a non-invasive outpatient treatment that uses magnetic energy to stimulate brain receptors and relieve major depression. Approved by the FDA in 2008, TMS is effective in about 60% of patients, or twice as effective as antidepressants, with far fewer side effects.

Family holiday celebrations will never be perfect, but you can change how you handle unpleasant relatives. If you feel you’re experiencing depression, there’s no better present you can give yourself than the gift of treatment to alleviate your symptoms and find peace of mind.