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How to Cope with Depression During the Holidays

how-cope-depresison-holidays.jpgPhoto: martin-dm / Getty Images

With spiked eggnog, made-for-TV holiday movies, those joy-inducing ginormous inflatable snowmen, and merry AF storefronts, the time from Thanksgiving through New Year's is marketed as everyone's favorite time of year. But (#truthtime), between family tensions, all that unavoidable small talk, gift (and money) stress, and pressure to be jolly, the holiday season can also be less than cheerful. (Related: How to Navigate Political #RealTalk During the Holidays)

While the holidays can be stressful for everyone, they can be especially triggering for folks with depression. "It's really common for people—even those who have not been clinically diagnosed with depression—to experience holiday blues," says Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., a New York City–based therapist. (Related: Did You Know There Are 4 Different Types of Depression?)

However, the holidays don't have to send you into a downward spiral. Below, seven expert-backed tips for dealing with depression during the holidays—and how to actually enjoy this time of year.

Make a plan.

Plan ahead to limit triggers, uncomfortable situations, and the amount of time you have to spend with toxic people, suggests Kryss Shane, L.M.S.W., therapist, social worker, and LGBT+ expert. "While it's important to make efforts to create memories with those you love, it's also important to be mindful of your own need for self-care." 

Consider what drains your energy this time of year, which conversations you don't want to have, and who you want (and don't want) to be around. If you're going home for the holidays, Shane suggests delicately communicating this information with your family so that you can work together to devise a plan. 

Even if you're not family-bound, "try not to isolate yourself during this season," says relationship therapist Stefani Goerlich, L.M.S.W. Make plans to do activities with people who bring you joy, or consider volunteering. "Oftentimes, doing something to serve others—even if it's as simple as loading Meals On Wheels into the truck for someone else to deliver—can give us a sense of connection and satisfaction that we could never feel sitting at home alone," she suggests. (Related: These Inspiring Health and Fitness Charities Are Changing the World)

One caveat: When planning your schedule, don't overbook yourself. Trying to do everything—see every person you graduated from high school with, get a gift for your cousin's cousins, go to all the holiday parties, meet every deadline—is enough to exhaust anyone. "Festivities are fun, but no amount of tree trimming is worth your mental health or your emotional stability," says Shane. (See: How to Find Time for Self-Care When You Have None)

Create a support system.

All three experts suggest telling the people you'll be spending the holidays with that you're struggling with your mental health. "Having someone to talk to and to process these feelings with can be hugely beneficial in navigating the season successfully," says Goerlich. These people can help you set and keep boundaries that will protect you from being thrust into situations that exacerbate feelings of depression.

You may even want to tell them in writing beforehand—so you can carefully choose your words and so you don't need to have the same conversation with each person in your life you'd like to tell, says Shane. "If you prefer to tell your loved ones in person, choose a time when things are calm and where only those closest to you are present so that everyone can speak freely."

What if you're spending the holidays with family members who are not typically kind, helpful, or supportive? Check in with your non-blood loved ones. Maybe even schedule a daily phone call or FaceTime session with the friends who lift you up. (Related: How to Deal When Friends or Family Don't Support Your Healthy Habits)

Skip the drinks.

Alcohol is associated with celebration, culturally, so it's easy to forget that it actually works as a depressant on the body. "Alcohol depresses your central nervous system, leading to symptoms like sleepiness, slower breathing, and memory loss...all of which can add to the feelings of depression you're already experiencing," explains Goerlich. (Related: How To Stop Drinking Alcohol Without Feeling More Awkward Than Buddy from Elf) It affects you afterward too: "Hangxiety" (hangover anxiety) is a real thing that can keep those downer feelings going the next day.

Her suggestion? Rather than grabbing a glass of wine, opt for a mocktail of ginger ale with a splash of cherry juice. (Or check out these healthy mocktails so good you won't miss the booze.)

Turn off the TV.

Fire up any station this time of year and there's probably a made-for-TV movie about an eager couple or family enjoying the holidays. (A quick scroll through Netflix's holiday selection is evidence enough.)

"So many of these seasonal movies show happy families gathering without animosity, trauma, or resentments," says Goerlich. For those who already feel frustrated or alone, the constant barrage of holiday happiness can exacerbate their sense of 'wrongness.'"

Even the commercials on TV this time of year are filled with images of traditional families and happy couples, which is why Shane suggests powering off the device, especially if you feel down about your lack of a traditional family experience or S.O.

Instead, replace the time you'd spend watching the tube either outdoors or working out. "Nature and physical activity have both been shown to reduce symptoms of depression," says Smerling. (More on that: The Combination of Exercise and Meditation Can Decrease Depression)

Quit your scroll.

Like Hallmark movies, too many people on Instagram can make you feel inadequate. "Our social feeds create the illusion that everyone else is happy and perfect. We can't know what those people are actually dealing with," says Smerling. (Related: How to Be As Happy IRL As You ~Look~ On Instagram) That's one reason why a study published last year found that Instagram is bad your mental health.

If quitting your feeds cold turkey isn't realistic, simply cutting back on your screen time—and therefore how many of those envy-invoking images you're seeing—can help. (Also try these tips for how to do a digital detox without FOMO.)

Get yourself a gift.

Winter's colder weather and fewer hours of daylight can have a real psychological effect, says Shane. For instance, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that often emerges at the end of daylight saving time, when there's reduced exposure to boosting sunlight triggers—which can change the brain chemistry in some people and lead to profound sadness.

Playing Santa to yourself can't cure SAD or depression, there are a few gadgets that may help manage your symptoms: "Consider investing in noise-canceling headphones to tune out triggering background music while working or shopping. Invest in full-spectrum light bulbs (or a light therapy lamp) to counterbalance the effects that early sunsets and long, dark, nights can have on our sleep or rest cycles," suggests Goerlich. Or try a weighted blanket, which are touted for their calming qualities.

Try digital therapy.

Everyone can benefit from seeing a therapist, but a mental health professional can be especially helpful during the holidays. "Your therapist can help you devise a game plan for coping during the holidays despite the distance from them," says Shane. Skype and telephone therapy sessions are becoming more common, so she and Goerlich suggest taking advantage of that if it's a service your therapist offers.

If that's not an option or you don't have a therapist and you know you'll need someone to talk to, Goerlich suggests reaching out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. They have volunteers you can chat with via text 24/7, and they'll be there to talk you through your feelings of holiday malaise. You can also try any of these mental health and therapy apps. Goerlich also recommends using a meditation app for some quick mindfulness meditation when you start to feel overwhelmed. And, hey, if you've been putting off making a first therapy appointment, focus on what you could gain from getting mental health treatment and make that a 2019 resolution.

Note: If you or someone you love is depressed and considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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