My 17-year-old son asked me the other day, “Why do people get depressed around the holidays? This time of year is full of great food, presents, music, lights, families being together, time off—it’s great. What’s there to be depressed about?”
I was heartened to know that he had such a positive experience of the holiday season that he couldn’t even imagine why someone wouldn’t. Maybe it’s occupational hazard, but most of the people I talk to all day have painful feelings around the holidays—many feel depressed, or more depressed if they already were depressed.
So I explained to him that other people had a very different experience of the holidays from his. I want to share with you some of the reasons:
- Holidays make people think about anyone they’ve lost, especially if they’ve happily spent holidays with that person or pet before losing them. This could be grandparents, spouses, children, animals, or any other relationships lost to death, separation, divorce, or anything else.
- People see those around them and people on TV and movies getting together in family groups for the holidays. For someone who is single, or feels alone and lonely, it can seem like everyone else has a warm, happy family to nurture and protect them, which accentuates the loneliness.
- Holidays can remind people of what happened in their families when they were children. For people who grew up with an alcoholic or angry parent, neglectful parents, abusive parents, extended families in conflict, poverty, sickness, and other unhappy hardships, holidays can trigger those painful memories.
- People can feel pressure around the holidays in many areas, such as having enough money to buy nice presents, looking “good” to family members who are critical, or presenting food and entertainment to a room full of people.
- The pressures and atmosphere of indulgence around the holidays can exacerbate addictions, so alcoholics and food addicts, bombarded with pressure to eat and drink may eat and drink more, compulsive shoppers may buy more, anorexics may starve more, and so on. The more addicts ramp up their addiction, the more shame, loss of control, desperation, and depression they feel. Even people in recovery, may find their abstinence threatened.
- Holidays often require people to spend time with family, and when some of those family members molested them as children, or criticize them, or even just seem so different that people feel out of place with other family members, this can be torture. This can especially be true when people have secrets, like being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, and not feeling safe coming out, or have other secrets like trouble in a marriage, or impending layoffs at work, or aspects of themselves or their partnerships their family disapproves of, such as being obese, or having a mixed-race relationship, or having tattoos/piercings/body modifications, or any number of other aspects people condemn, criticize or marginalize.
- People who are not Christian may feel unimportant when Christmas takes over everywhere they go. Jews, agnostics, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and the rest of the world may feel resentful about getting Christianity in their faces with decorations, Christmas carols, and symbols of Christianity everywhere.
- The end-of-the-year holidays come at a dark time, with cold, uncomfortable weather and short, often gloomy days. Winter holidays were intended to counter this natural darkness, but especially when people are susceptible to seasonal affect disorder, this is a depressing time.
- Around New Years, people tend to take inventory, and if they feel like they haven’t accomplished what they wanted to that year, they may become critical of themselves, and discouraged.
This probably isn’t a comprehensive list, and I’d be very interested in other people’s thoughts about what makes this a time of year that is depressing for many people. So, please share your ideas!
Perhaps surprisingly, when the holidays are over, or within a month or so, people often feel better, when any of the issues I named are what is making them feel depressed. Of course, all good self-care is important this time of year—anything you can do to nurture yourself in compassionate, harmless ways, and protect yourself from intrusions you don’t want is being a good parent to yourself—our most important job as adults.
© Copyright 2011 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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