‘Tis the Season to Be Depressed

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Related Articles:
Holiday Blues
Better New Years Resolutions for Depression
Recovering from Holiday Stress

© Copyright 2011 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Candace

    December 13th, 2011 at 5:53 PM

    Is it the season to be depressed?
    Should it be the season to be depressed?
    I think that if you are feeling blue this time of the year then you need to have an adjustment in terms of what your priorities in life are!
    What better time of the year to celebrate all that we have been given and to make a joyful noise that we are here and alive and well?
    Sometimes I think that we all spend a little too much time mourning the things that we don’t have and too little time focusing on all of the good that we do.

  • Liz.M

    December 14th, 2011 at 11:01 PM

    Depression is all around, all around the year. It affects different people at different times according to their life situation. But the holiday season brings it out in a lot more people because there is this PRESSURE to be happy! This may sound weird to some people but I certainly believe there is a real pressure to be happy in the holiday season.

    But rally,should I be happy when the calendar dictates it rather than follow my heart and be happy when I really am happy?!

    Trying to do so is only gonna make me feel even more depressed.Is this so hard to see for everybody going around saying “hey,its the holiday season!You need to be happy!”.Can I not even follow what is inside me?I am not going to let anybody tell me when to be happy!

  • Rocky G.

    December 15th, 2011 at 5:51 PM

    I blame the media for creating unrealistic expectations in our heads for what the perfect family Christmas looks like. I’ve never been to a home that had everything coordinated, a fabulous dinner with nothing left undone and most of all every person is smiling and happy. It’s not real!

  • Wynne Devine

    December 15th, 2011 at 6:05 PM

    @Rocky: Yeah, especially the “every person is smiling and happy” part. There’s always at least one kid sulking or fighting with the others, a broken toy before the end of the day and old arguments rearing their ugly heads once the alcohol starts making the adults brave. I hate Christmas.

  • RosalynGardner

    December 15th, 2011 at 8:05 PM

    The spirit of Christmas-the love and the giving of yourself- is completely buried in the commercialism. That’s what depresses me about it. What happened to peace on earth and goodwill to all men? I definitely don’t see any evidence of that.

  • n.d.

    December 15th, 2011 at 8:41 PM

    Christmas is what you make it. It’s very hard when you’ve lost someone to celebrate it. To me that feels like a betrayal to enjoy what they no longer can and seeing that empty chair at the table is heartbreaking every day, never mind at Christmas. But I will do my best because I know he’d want me to.

  • J.E. Roberts

    December 16th, 2011 at 12:18 AM

    I feel it’s better for your sanity (or certainly mine) to stay away from high pressured family gatherings like Christmas if you don’t have a good relationship with your siblings. My rule of thumb is if I’m not going to feel better after I leave there than I did when I arrived, I’m not going. Simple, easy benchmark.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    December 17th, 2011 at 12:52 AM

    These are really useful additions to my list–thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

  • Heather M.

    November 30th, 2012 at 6:19 PM

    Something I recently heard, which is kind of similar to your #9 point is that all this time of year, and especially New Years, reminds this person of is that he/she is going into another year of of problems. It’s not seen as a “fresh” start, but just the end of one year of misery and another year of the miseries that are being experienced. I also agree with the above points that commercialism makes it feel like the true spirit of the holidays, specifically religious or not, are gone.

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