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A Love Letter to the Depressed: Holiday Edition

Hey folks with depression, I see you out there, doing the best you can during the holidays. 

I know this isn’t the easiest time of year. Although I think our cultural narrative around holidays is shifting and making room for a wider range of emotions, there are still a lot of “shoulds” that pop up in November and December. You should be feeling merry, jolly, and bright. You should want to attend another holiday party, travel long distances despite suspect weather conditions to see family, and deck all of the halls with all of the boughs of whatever the f**k. 

For those with depression, Halloween through New Year’s Day can feel like a miserable slog—a season to be survived; a bleak crawl through the darkness. In addition to the heaviness we feel this time of year, holiday hype has its own sort of manic quality. The vibe is all strained smiles and pawing through the bargain sock bin at Costco, and at the end of it all we’re left feeling ill, dizzy, and depleted headed into the new year. 

With that sort of energy, it’s easy to understand why people feel depressed during the holidays, and why those with existing depression may find their experience heightened. I wonder if people who really love the November/December marathon are in the minority, while most of us hold on white-knuckled and wait for it to be over. 

Like the holiday season, depression is sort of an odd, suspended state. Depression’s foggy, heavy, and blurry qualities can make it hard to notice when we’re in it, like trying to see our reflection in mercury glass. These qualities also make it hard to remember how it felt to be in depression once we’re out of it. We might look back and say “huh, I think I was depressed” while forgetting the particular feelings and sensations of a depressive episode. My guess is this forgetfulness is one of the reasons people stop taking antidepressants once they start feeling better—it’s easy to blank out how “bleh” things were when depression was taking up a lot of room.  

In my Anxiety is Like Ice Cream blog I talked about all the different flavors of anxiety and how the diversity of flavors can at times make anxiety hard to recognize. I think depression is the same way. We imagine depression as one thing, maybe something we see depicted in shows and movies or described in a book. Depression can look wildly different in different people, another quality that makes it hard to pin down. The kind of depression I saw growing up was the “stay in bed for several years” flavor, so it took me a long time to understand the more subtle nuances of depressed states. 

This comes up sometimes in the therapy room when I suggest to someone I work with that they might be experiencing depression. They find it hard to reconcile their current thoughts and feelings with times they’ve been really depressed in the past, or they compare themselves to other really depressed people in their lives. “This can’t be depression—it’s not as bad as that time in college.” I believe a couple of nuances are at play here. One is the forgetfulness I mentioned earlier. I also think fear shows up…when you've been extremely depressed, the idea of having even some depression can feel terrifying as you are understandably afraid of slipping down into the hole you were in before and never being able to get out. That said...

I really believe normalizing all flavors of depression, especially in our culture, particularly during the holidays, can be helpful. 

If we’re able to name and acknowledge the subtle facets of depression, then we can start to identify ways to help people cope and move with more ease through the season. 

Ways to Cope with Holiday Depression

Now that we’ve named the ways in which depression can be slippery to identify and have begun to normalize its spectrum of existence, let’s explore some options for working with depression during the holidays.

  • Reframe the holiday season as a time to go inward, get cozy, wind down, and reflect
    If you find yourself buying into the “shoulds” of the season and expecting yourself to do and be all the things, you might want to explore this reframe. It’s ok to take breaks, do more mellow activities, get lots of sleep, and have more quiet time. There is a bit of a delicate balance here because for some people, their flavor of depression is such that too much looking inward, reflecting, quietness, and slowness can lead to an increase in depressive symptoms. In order to stay balanced, try incorporating one small soothing ritual or routine such as lighting a candle before bed and journaling for 15 minutes, or doing some gentle stretching when you wake up in the morning. See how this feels, and if your mental state responds positively, you might try bringing in more reflective, restorative practices like coloring, collage, reading, doing puzzles, meditating, or stretching. 

  • Find warmth and/or sunshine
    Here in Colorado we are lucky enough to have bright sun most winter days, and even on chilly days the sun can feel warm. Getting out and moving your body around midday can serve as a reminder that the darkness won’t last forever, and provides you with a hit of Vitamin D. In both Colorado and in cloudier climates you can experiment with increased light or heat via a sun lamp, heating pads, a hot bath, hot springs, or a sauna. Having warm enough clothes for the season is important as well. And if you’re privileged enough to escape to warmer, sunnier climes, give yourself permission to take a trip during the bleakest months of the year. 

  • Try non-punitive, sweat-producing exercise
    The heavy, dense qualities of depression can benefit from their opposite, i.e., sweating and increasing our heart rate. I say “non-punitive” because people can get so self-punishing around exercise, especially during holidays. Instead of torturing yourself by doing exercise your body doesn’t like, think about exploring movement that brings you joy or peace. We have a plethora of classes in Durango, so you might try something new like dance, martial arts, kickboxing, or restorative yoga. Again, notice how your body feels when you do these activities. If you find yourself feeling more run down and depleted than energized, you might need more restful or restorative options. 

  • Consider medication
    I really try to be conservative in talking about medication, especially in our holistic vibes town. The longer I’ve worked in mental health, however, the more I advocate for at least a conversation with your primary care doctor if you are experiencing ongoing depression. I’ve seen over and over again the extreme relief people experience when they’ve been depressed for a long time and finally give themselves permission to try an antidepressant. This obviously isn’t the case for everyone, and both providers and patients need to exercise caution around certain types of antidepressants if there’s a family history of bipolar or mania. That said, the majority of people I work with who have struggled for a long time with depression and start taking medication are amazed by how much easier things get. I think the puritanical idea of “hard work fixes anything” gets in the way here big time. People tell themselves they just haven’t worked hard enough to overcome their difficulties and that taking medication is a cop-out or weakness. This is nonsense—everyone I know who has depression has tried really hard for a really long time to feel better. So if you’ve been struggling for a while, at least give yourself the gift of getting more information about your options. 

If you know you’re depressed, I see you, I feel you, and I know you’re doing the best you can. If you’re not sure, you might consider sharing your experience with a trusted friend, doing some journaling, or talking to a mental health professional. If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts during the holidays, dial 988 to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline, or use our local mental health community support line at 970.247.5245.