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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Coping With Holiday Cheer or How To Reduce the Risk of Depression

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 20th 2006

It is that time of year again when the days are counted down until Christmas, radio and television are filled with the familiar holiday songs and old movies are broadcast on television that depict the family and community solidarity of Christmas. So why is it that many people become depressed during this time of year despite all of the hype about cheerfulness? What can you do to avoid the depression and anxiety that afflicts so many others?

Why do some people become depressed during the holidays?

Those people who experience some form of mental illness tend to be more vulnerable to depression during and after the holidays. Mental illness often carries with it social isolation due to the stigma of having a mental illness. Those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia tend to be self isolating as a result of the illness. Paranoid thoughts and feelings make it harder for these individuals to fully engage in social activities. However, this does not mean that they are immune from the nostalgic feelings and thoughts about family belongingness and well being.

Whether the diagnosis is schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, there is a wish to join into the fun by going to parties, drinking, eating too much, staying up late, and going shopping and spending money to buy presents. The problem is that these activities can and do bring about relapse and possible hospitalization. Alcohol does not mix well with psychiatric medications nor does it have a good effect on the symptoms of either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Even for those without the acute mental illnesses there is a risk of depression and anxiety if people do not care for themselves. Anyone who over-indulges in over eating, over partying, over drinking, etc. puts themselves at risk. Alcohol consumption interferes with sleep and either causes or increases feelings of depression.

Perhaps one of the greatest risk factors for holiday depression has to do with expectations. Approaching this time of year with the hope of purchasing the perfect gift for everyone is setting themselves up for major frustration. I hear so many people complain about the burden of having to shop for others and worrying that they will be disappointed with what they get.

After all the celebrating and gift giving is over people are then faced with huge debts that they have to repay to credit companies. When the bills begin to pour in after the holidays many people experience resentment and worry about the amount they spent and how they will manage to pay off the bills.

Those people who have suffered the loss of loved ones, especially during the previous year, experience increased sadness during the holidays. Nostalgic memories of and yearnings for the lost loved one make the holidays especially hard for those who are mourning.

Elderly people whose children moved to other parts of the country and whose spouses have died face increased feelings of loneliness, abandonment and sadness during the holidays. Sometimes this population of people is at risk of self medicating their depression by drinking alone.

How To Avoid Holiday Depression,

Some Suggestions:

The purpose of this part of this log is not to be a "grinch and steal Christmas" but to offer some ideas of how to fend off or reduce possible emotional complications:

1. It is really important to get plenty of sleep all year around and especially during the holidays when there are many demands made on people to shop for and visit family and friends. We Americans notoriously do not sleep enough and it takes its toll in stress and health issues all during the year. Both during the year as well as the holidays we need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep to night.

2. If you have a history of having sad or upsetting holidays do things differently. Either reduce or eliminate your drinking this year. Do not stay up late at night. Do not over stress yourself by trying to decorate the perfect Christmas tree or having the most decorated house in the neighborhood.

3. Do not plan on visiting everyone all at once. Make a schedule in which you can handle visitations in the least stressful way possible.

4. If you cannot afford a lot of presents let your family know. I know several families who have decided on giving gifts to the children and not to adults. Also, send cards instead of expensive gifts so that friends and family will feel thought about.

5. If you do not want to have the holiday family dinner party at your house then do not. Discuss it with family and allow others to run the party at their house.

6. Refrain from over eating (and over drinking).

7. Make a budget based on what you can afford this year and stick to it no matter what.

8. Learn to say "NO" to people if you simply cannot or do not want to go to their houses or parties.

9. Take care of yourself. Sleep, exercise and moderation are the best policies all year, including the holiday season

Have a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanza and, whomever I may have missed, consider your self included in the well wishes regardless of religion, race or ethnic group.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Family and Christmas - Anne - Dec 21st 2010

    Simply say you are traveling.  There is no reason to insult family.

    Holiday Depression for "No Reason" - Allan N Schwartz - Dec 11th 2008

    Hi and thank you for your question,

    Actually, the article was intended for everyone. To that purpose, the idea was to try to be as inclusive of everyone as possible. Still, you ask an excellent question. My answer might not work for everyone but, I hope it will be somewhat helpful.

    In my opinion, if visiting family during the holidays causes depression (and that is not unusual) I would suggest not visiting. In making that choice, you can be bruttally honest with your family or you can fabricate an excuse. If you are brutally honest, their are likely to be hard feelings. If you fabricate an excuse they may attempt to talk you into coming. If they try to pressure you then there is always, "I am sorry but I just cannot get there this year."

    No everyone can do either of these because of the guilt that some people experience in not visiting. However, it seems to me that each of us, as adults, has the right to protect ourselves from unpleasant and depressing experiences. It takes a lot of courage to go against one's family but, in my opinion, it is OK to do it, if you can, because each of us, as adults, have the right to care for our needs.

    So, my idea is that you can use all the ideas in this and other articles to help you feel better and you can decide not to see them and either tell them why or make an excuse but with no discussions allowed.

    In any case, good luck to you and everyone and have a wonderful holiday season as free of stress as possible.

    Dr. Schwartz

    Holiday depression for no reason - - Dec 10th 2008

    What if you are not mentally ill, do not have a drinking problem, do not have a financial issue, and none of the other things mentioned, but the thought of visiting your family at the holidays is what sets off the depression?  How do you cope with that?  How do you tell your family that you just cannot see them at Christmas because it depresses you? 

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