Surviving Thanksgiving When You Aren’t Feeling Thankful

holding fall maple leafPicture Thanksgiving Day. You’ve just joined your family at the table to feast on turkey and stuffing when suddenly, a festive, well-meaning relative suggests that everyone go around the table and share something that they are thankful for.


If you are one of the millions of Americans who experiences depression, this may feel like an impossible, unanswerable question. If you’ve been feeling such deep despair that you haven’t been able to get out of bed for the last several days, then you probably feel you don’t have anything to be thankful for. You’re probably just trying to get through the day. And you probably want to push your chair away from the table, tell your relative to mind their own business, and crawl back into bed.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving isn’t here just yet. So, let’s take a step back and think about what you might do to keep the holiday from worsening your already-difficult emotional state. First, as a person facing depression, try as often as possible to surround yourself with supportive, patient, loving people who make you feel safe. Some people are fortunate enough to find this with their families, but many are not. If family problems contribute to your depression, or if your family just can’t figure out how to support you, consider spending the holiday away from them.

If spending a holiday apart from your family is a foreign concept to you, you may be wondering what you will do and where you will do it. You might also feel like you are the only person who comes from a family that tends to make things worse, rather than better. Rest assured that this is not true. A quick poll of your friends and coworkers will probably reveal that many people are as excited about family holiday gatherings as they are about getting the stomach flu. So ask some friends if they would be interested having a Thanksgiving celebration together.

Even if you don’t get any takers, you may get an invitation to a friend’s family Thanksgiving. Spending the holiday with a family who enjoys a healthier dynamic might feel really good. On the other hand, it could be a painful reminder of what you do not have. If you feel your thoughts beginning to shift to your own family’s shortcoming, remember that, for this one day, you don’t have to deal with those shortcomings. Instead, you can be completely present in each moment—enjoy every bite of good food and every ounce of pleasant company.

There are also many options for people who would rather forgo holiday gatherings all together. If you are very career-oriented, consider volunteering to work over some or all of the holiday weekend. You’ll probably make a holiday pay rate and your colleagues will appreciate your sacrifice. If you are a philanthropic sort of person, consider volunteering to serve a Thanksgiving meal to the homeless. Serving a vulnerable population can be a deeply meaningful and fulfilling experience—it might remind you of the good things in your life, and it will certainly feel good to do something kind for someone in need. If you are a movie buff, consider taking in a movie or two. If you are a fashionista, hit some of the Black Friday sales. If you are a travel aficionado, consider taking a trip to another country where Thanksgiving isn’t even a holiday!

The bottom line is this: dealing with depression is draining on a good day and crippling on a bad day. If you anticipate that Thanksgiving is going to be a day, or a weekend, with the potential to send you on a downward spiral, spend some time reflecting on what will make it manageable for you. Think about who you would like to surround yourself with, and what you would like to do. Then, work to get as close to this scenario as you can. If you are already working with a therapist, spend some time in your sessions preparing for the holiday. If you are not currently in therapy, consider giving yourself a Thanksgiving gift and schedule an initial consultation with a therapist. You don’t have to suffer alone and you don’t have to suffer forever.

© Copyright 2011 by By Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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

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  • Kendra

    November 10th, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    For a lot of people the holidays are more depressing than joyful.

    But oh wow that must be a hriible way to live!

    I know that you can’t always control how you feel but you sure can control what you do about it. And if you choose to wallow in all of that misery, then maybe you could just hole up and not come out til January.

  • Deborah Robb

    November 10th, 2011 at 6:06 PM

    I can’t stand being with my family at Thanksgiving. It’s all so fake! Do they think I’ve forgotten how we grew up, scared and wondering every night if it would be your turn for a whipping?? They all act as if it never happened and if it wouldn’t break my mom’s heart, I’d stop going.

  • Tracey Bradford

    November 10th, 2011 at 6:16 PM

    I would be delighted to avoid Thanksgiving and go help at a shelter! I’d like to know how to say no I’m not coming to a difficult family (aren’t I lucky it’s mine) who think refusing to attend the annual Thanksgiving dinner is akin to sacrificing your first-born. It just isn’t done.

    How can I get out of it without hurting feelings or having to lie? I don’t live far enough away that I can use distance as an excuse. I’m sick of giving in every year and then resenting every moment I’m there.

  • Belle

    November 10th, 2011 at 7:19 PM

    It’s the responsibility of any host to make sure they don’t upset or offend any of the guests. Especially if they know of the issues beforehand, and depression is a big one. If you know a friend or relative is having a really challenging year, they’ll either be thankful for their family or break down in tears. Bear in mind they are feeling fragile and treat them accordingly.


    November 10th, 2011 at 11:46 PM

    I’m 15 and feel depressed quite often.And holidays are worse because everybody expects a smile stuck up your face and nothing short of it seems to suffice! And when I do approach my parents and say something like I don’t feel good or happy they just shrug it away saying teen problems. But I don’t think this is just another teen problem!

    I feel low and even the smallest of things seems like a big task. I hate this feeling and wanna get rid of it. Please help.

  • Kara

    November 23rd, 2023 at 11:05 AM

    Your feelings are very valid, I had the same issues as well and could not turn to my family either for the help I needed. The people in your life will come, and they are worth waiting for. I hope you have some peace this holiday season.

  • Amy Luechtefeld

    November 11th, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    I understand that holidays can be particularly difficult for coping with family issues. I am a therapist and I would love to be able to help you find your inner strength for the holidays and beyond. Please don’t hesitate to seek the help of a mental health professional.

  • Bradley D.

    November 11th, 2011 at 2:33 PM

    “A well-meaning relative suggests that everyone go around the table and share something that they are thankful for. Ugh.”

    And all you need to say is “I’m breathing” and mean it with all sincerity. You can have an attitude of gratitude for that fact alone. Many families will have an empty seat at their Thanksgiving table for the first time this year, so count your blessings.

  • f.a.

    November 11th, 2011 at 3:31 PM

    I like to get through Thanksgiving by repeating mentally to myself my mantra of “this too shall pass” at various times throughout the day.

    Seriously, I do! Knowing it’s only one day out of 365, 24 measly hours, helps very much. See that light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Julie Spears

    November 11th, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    After spending Thanksgiving with my very large family, I reward myself when I get home and unwind by watching a new DVD I bought just for that occasion and then a nice bubble bath. I deserve it after all the tongue-biting and self-restraint I put in to the day! Remember to appreciate yourself too on Thanksgiving. :)

  • dawn green

    November 11th, 2011 at 5:37 PM

    If they are your family, they’ll understand about your depression and probably avoid that part of your life completely unless you bring it up. They probably want to just have a nice dinner everyone can enjoy and enjoy spending time together too without any dramas, same as you.

    Me, I’m thankful for my family and that’s about the best answer you could give.

  • Mack Peters

    November 11th, 2011 at 6:10 PM

    @dawn green: In my family we just say over the festivities “You know what I’m thankful for? X.” We all pitch in at our own pace, and there is no pressure to contribute. We don’t take any holidays too seriously, because sibling rivalry can ruin the entire holiday. There are no attempts at oneupmanship.

  • G. Burris

    November 11th, 2011 at 6:15 PM

    It might seem to be a good idea to avoid your family during times when you’re completely depressed and just want some alone time at first, but it’s honestly not. You should go there and do your best. Be truthful and clear that if depression starts hitting you, then you’ll go home and it’s nothing personal. You may even enjoy it!

  • lindsey hopkins

    November 13th, 2011 at 5:30 AM

    Come on! It’s Thanksgiving!
    Get out of bed and enjoy that time with your family!
    I have felt that way before, like nothing will bring me down more than having to spend and entire day or even weekend with my sometimes loud and obnoxious family.
    But now, looking back, I would not exchange those opportunities for anything in the world, and I am so glad that I have those memories to laugh about now.

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    December 7th, 2011 at 9:15 PM

    Thank you all for sharing so much of yourselves in your comments.

    Geoff, I’m so sorry your parents aren’t hearing you requests for help. Try talking to them again and if that doesn’t work, ask a counselor at school to talk to them with you. Sometimes getting an objective third party involved makes parents take notice.

    F.A., I like your mantra “this too will pass” to help you out in difficult moments.

  • Carolyn

    November 18th, 2016 at 8:23 PM

    Unfortunately, this year it will be just my husband and me for Thanksgiving. It isn’t the first year that it’s only been the two of us, but it is the first year since our daughter eliminated us from her life. And my son and his family won’t be able to come down due to the four-hour drive and his Crohn’s Disease has made him sicker thank usual. He’s not up for company, so we’ve decided to go to Cracker Barrel for Thanksgiving Day. We made this decision due to our family problems and because we are moving on December 1st back to the mountains from the coast. The one great thing about moving is that it keeps our minds on packing and preparing for the move. But as Thanksgiving draws close, my mind keeps thinking about our daughter…did her decision help her anxiety, is she happy, what will she and her husband do for Thanksgiving. Even though it’s been four months since she dropped this bomb on us, I don’t know if we’ll ever see her again. I feel like she has died and we haven’t had the funeral yet. I know that sounds morbid, but I feel like grieving for her is never going to stop. I wish there was something we could do, but she made it clear we needed to stay away from her. So, I’m having a difficult time dealing with the upcoming holidays. In fact, I dread them and my depression levels are up.
    Thanks for reading….

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