Coping With Depression and Anxiety During the Holiday Season – Tips and Information from Matone Counseling & Testing
The holiday season is a time of joy and celebration for many folks, but for those who struggle with depression, it can be a difficult and heavy time. The pressure to be happy – or at least appear so – combined with the stress of gift-giving, family gatherings, and other social obligations, can exacerbate symptoms of depression and make it more difficult to function in daily life. In addition to the pressures to be in the ‘holiday spirit’, many individuals who struggle with depression may also experience anxiety related to interpersonal relationships and commitments for external events like holiday parties, and visiting relatives. These activities can trigger symptoms of social anxiety and even performance anxiety which can further exacerbate depression. Add in the pressure to give and receive gifts (which can be overwhelming, especially on a budget), or missing lost loved ones who may have made past seasons special, and the holidays can feel like a losing battle.
For folks fighting the battle against depression, there are a number of evidence-based clinical techniques that have been shown to provide considerable relief during this challenging time of year.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). One approach that has been found to be effective is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy focuses on helping individuals identify and change negative thought patterns that contribute to their depression. In the context of the holiday season, CBT can help individuals to reframe their thoughts about the holidays in a more positive light, and to challenge the belief or perceived expectation that they must be happy and embrace a joyous occasion. This approach can help to reduce feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy, and can make it more feasible to begin to engage in activities and interactions that may genuinely be more enjoyable and fulfilling.
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT). This type of therapy focuses on improving communication and relationships with others. For individuals who are struggling with depression during the holidays, IPT can help to foster and maintain supportive relationships with friends, family, and chosen family. This approach aims to provide a sense of connection and belonging, which is paramount during a time when social isolation and loneliness serve to exacerbate symptoms of depression.
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This approach combines elements of CBT with mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness practices. MBCT can help individuals to become more aware of their thoughts and emotions, and to respond to them in a more constructive and compassionate way, free of self-judgment. This can reduce the impact of negative thoughts and emotions, and can make it easier to engage in activities and relationships that support a positive mindset.
- Exposure therapy is another modality that can be effective in addressing anxiety related to personal relationships and external events. This type of therapy involves gradually exposing individuals to the situations and activities that trigger their anxiety, in a controlled and supportive environment. Through repeated exposure, individuals can learn to manage their anxiety and to engage in the activities that trigger it without experiencing overwhelming distress. This can help to reduce the impact of anxiety on daily life and can make it easier to enjoy the season.
- Another approach that can be effective in addressing anxiety related to personal relationships and external events is acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). This type of therapy focuses on helping individuals to accept their thoughts and emotions, and to commit to engaging in activities that are consistent with their values and goals. In the context of the holiday season, ACT can help individuals to accept their anxiety and to engage in activities like visiting relatives or attending holiday parties, even if they are anxious about doing so. This can help to reduce avoidance and procrastination, which serve to heighten and prolong anxiety.
- Somatic experiencing therapy focuses on the mind-body connection and helps individuals regulate their nervous system in order to reduce symptoms of stress and trauma, often understood as fight, flight (anxiety) and freeze (depression). This approach can be particularly effective for individuals who are struggling with depression, as it can help them develop a greater awareness of their physical sensations and emotions and learn to shift them. By learning to recognize and respond to physical sensations in a helpful way, folks can reduce their symptoms of depression and feel more present and grounded during the holiday season.
So, even though the holiday season can bring tidings of stress and low mood, today’s clinical interventions can provide a way to cope and give us hope. By using these approaches, individuals can learn to reframe their thoughts, build and maintain supportive relationships, and develop mindfulness skills that can help them to find relief and genuine enjoyment during the holiday season.
In addition to clinical interventions, there are a number of other simple strategies to deal with the stressors of the holiday season.
- Realistic Expectations and Boundaries. One such strategy is to practice setting realistic expectations and boundaries around holiday commitments and interactions. This means being honest with ourselves and others about what we can and cannot do, and being willing to say “no” to activities or requests that are not feasible or desirable. Setting realistic expectations and boundaries can help to prevent overcommitting and can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed by the demands of the holiday season. *This one can be tricky, and should be practiced in tandem with self-compassion and the other strategies below, as pushback against our boundaries can sometimes come with further testing of those boundaries.
- Prioritize Meaning. Another way to reduce stress related to holiday commitments and gift-giving is to prioritize activities and gifts that are meaningful and enjoyable. This means focusing on the things that matter most, rather than trying to do everything or give everyone a perfect gift. Prioritizing activities and gifts that are meaningful and enjoyable can help to reduce the feeling of being rushed and overwhelmed, and can reinvigorate our experience of the holidays with meaning.
- Mindfulness. YES – mindfulness! Don’t roll your eyes here, folks. One of the most simple and effective techniques to counter symptoms of depression and anxiety is practicing mindfulness. This involves bringing one’s attention to the present moment, without judgment, and allowing thoughts and emotions to pass without getting caught up in them. Mindfulness can be practiced through meditation, yoga, and deep breathing – but also while sitting at a stoplight or standing in line at the store – and can help individuals to reduce stress and anxiety, and to access a sense of calm and clarity.
- Physical Activity. Engaging in regular physical activity is a great way to combat the low mood and motivation that depression brings. Exercise has been shown to have a number of mental health benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety, improving mood, and enhancing cognitive function. Engaging in regular physical activity during the holiday season can help folks avoid their mood dropping to an unmanageable low, and to feel more energized and positive.
- Practice Self-Compassion. With the holidays pressuring us to focus on others, it is an important time to remind ourselves to practice self-compassion. This involves treating ourselves with kindness, understanding, and curiosity, rather than judging ourselves harshly or comparing ourselves to others. Self-compassion can help individuals to reduce feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy, and can make it easier to manage difficult thoughts and emotions.
Anxiety related to personal relationships and external events can be a significant challenge for individuals who struggle with depression and anxiety during the holidays. However, effective relief can be found in clinical interventions with a trained therapist, as well as simple techniques and strategies which can be used to build a personalized day-to-day, moment-to-moment practice. By using these approaches, folks can learn to engage in the activities and relationships that are important to them, despite their symptoms of anxiety and depression. This can help to reduce the impact they have on daily life and can make it easier to find meaning and experience enjoyment during the holiday season.
Author: Nicole Boudreaux, LCSW
Nicole is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of North Carolina. She earned her Master’s Degrees in Social Work from Western Carolina University where she focused on Integrated Healthcare and was recognized for Excellence in Leadership. She is passionate about working with adolescents and teens (12-18) and young adults who may be experiencing challenges with difficulty adjusting to new situations, anxiety, relationship issues, and trauma.