5 Ways to Cope With Depression During the Holiday Season

The holidays can bring about stress and difficult emotions for anyone, and especially for people living with depression. Fortunately, these expert-backed strategies can help you feel better.

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woman stringing lights alone on holiday

For people with clinical depression, the stresses of the holiday season could make their symptoms worse.

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Despite the bright lights and festive cheer that accompany the winter holidays, this time of year can bring about feelings of loneliness, isolation, grief, and sadness, both for people with clinical depression and even for some who aren’t depressed.

Depression around the holidays can happen for many reasons, says Akua Boateng, PhD, a Philadelphia-based psychotherapist who specializes in individual and couples therapy.

“The holidays bring an increase in thoughts about family, relationships, and social engagement. If there are issues within these dynamics in our lives, depression can surface,” Dr. Boateng says.

And this time of year may also raise expectations of spending more time with family than usual, which can be stressful for some, says Sarah Gundle, PsyD, a New York City–based clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in trauma. Boateng adds that events with family may bring up old conflicts and emotions, which can be challenging to navigate.

The holidays can also be very difficult for people grieving the loss of loved ones, says Dr. Gundle.

These common holiday scenarios can be taxing for anyone, whether you have depression or not. But if you do have depression, they could worsen your symptoms.

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Depression Is More Than Just the Holiday Blues

Not all negative feelings during the holidays are signs of depression. In fact, temporary or situational anxiety or depression during the winter holidays (known as “the holiday blues”) is quite common, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). If you have the holiday blues, you might temporarily feel fatigued, tense, frustrated, lonely, or sad during the winter holidays, NAMI reports.

But clinical depression, which affects an estimated 6.7 percent of American adults, sticks around longer term, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Its symptoms last more than two weeks and affect your ability to function as you normally would. They include the following:

  • Sadness or depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Changes in appetite and sleep habits
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Having a hard time concentrating or making decisions
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

For some people, the wintertime can also trigger a certain kind of depression known as seasonal affective disorder. This type of depression happens in a seasonal pattern, usually worsening in the darker winter months and lifting by spring when the days are longer and brighter.

If you’ve had any of these symptoms and they’ve lasted for two weeks or longer, it’s wise to see a mental health professional about what you’re experiencing.

How to Manage Depression During the Holidays

No matter the cause of your low mood or negative feelings, having an arsenal of healthy coping strategies can help you prepare for and get through the festive months ahead when you’re managing depression. “While practicing good self-care is always important, it is even more important during the holidays,” says Gundle.

With that in mind, here are five expert-recommended strategies:

1. Stay Active and Get Outdoors

Moving your body is one of the best science-backed ways to cope with depression during any season, and the holidays are no exception. A meta-analysis of 23 studies showed that exercise is an effective way to manage depression and could also be useful when combined with antidepressant medication.

Boateng says that getting outside and exercising can help you avoid isolation and loneliness during the holiday season. Gundle agrees, and also suggests spending time in nature as another way to reduce your risk of depressive symptoms. One study showed that being surrounded by green space can reduce one’s risk of mental health conditions in the long term.

RELATED: 7 Great Exercises to Ease Depression

2. Share How You’re Feeling With Trusted Loved Ones

Boateng recommends surrounding yourself with people you can rely on during the holidays — whether it be family or friends — to help manage holiday depression. Ashley Bernardi, author of Authentic Power: Give Yourself Permission to Feel, says she reached out to trusted friends and shared how she was feeling during her darkest days with depression.

While she wasn’t sure how her friends would react, they gave her hope that healing was possible, helping her feel like she had something to live for.

If you confide in your loved ones about how you’re feeling, they may offer empathy, share their own experiences with you to help you feel less alone, or even suggest additional options for support that you may not know about.

“Never underestimate the power and love of your own community. People want to help. All you need to do is ask for it,” she says.

3. Assess Your Relationships and Set Boundaries

Boateng suggests monitoring your emotions around different people in your life and setting boundaries accordingly. This could mean limiting the time you spend during the holidays with people who cause you to feel negative emotions or exacerbate your depressive symptoms, as well as establishing boundaries for your interactions with and availability to those people, she says.

“It’s very important to be mindful of your own boundaries — and when something feels overwhelming, try to pay attention and act on it,” adds Gundle.

A mental health professional can help you learn how to set boundaries, says Boateng.

4. Consider Volunteering Throughout the Holiday Season

Gundle suggests volunteering as a possible way to cope with depression during the holidays. A 2021 review showed that volunteering for 2 or 3 hours a week or even just 1 to 10 hours a month may offer myriad mental health benefits, such as:

  • Meaning and purpose
  • Developing empathy toward others
  • Feeling like you matter
  • Contributing to society
  • Social connectedness
  • Being part of something larger than yourself

Finding a volunteerg opportunity that’s right for you will depend on several factors, including what activities you feel comfortable with, how much time you’re able to commit, and which causes you’re passionate about.

Bernardi has found healing in honoring her late father as a volunteer for Wreaths Across America, an organization that coordinates opportunities for volunteers to place holiday wreaths on U.S. veterans’ graves at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and other military cemeteries around the country. “It’s a great way to connect with something other than yourself, which I find helps greatly when those feelings of depression creep up,” Bernardi says.

If you’re wondering how to get started with volunteering, organizations like VolunteerMatch can help you find the right fit in your area.

5. Create a Coping Sheet or Depression Toolkit

A coping sheet is a list of favorite activities you can turn to when you’re feeling depressed. You can create one on your own, with your family members, or with your therapist. Bernardi says she made a coping sheet filled with actions she can take to help her manage depressive symptoms.

“I decorated it with beautiful colors and taped it to my refrigerator, so I had a constant reminder that there is always something to do to help lift my mood,” Bernardi says. In her case, those favorite mood-boosting activities include lighting candles, watching ballet, listening to classical music, painting pictures, singing, and meditating.

Other self-care activities you could add to your toolkit, according to the University of Michigan’s Eisenberg Family Depression Center in Ann Arbor:

  • Journaling
  • Acupuncture
  • Listening to music
  • Spirituality
  • Calm breathing
  • Positive self-talk

When and Where to Seek Help for Depression

While self-help strategies may ease life with depression, they rarely work on their own. Psychotherapy administered by a mental health professional, sometimes in conjunction with medication, is needed for long-term improvement.

It’s especially important to seek help if you have any signs of severe depression, says Gundle, including:

  • Extreme social isolation, which Gundle defines as staying home for extended periods of time (often intentionally) with no communication with family or friends
  • Thoughts of self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

You can find professional help through a variety of avenues:

  • Employee Assistance Programs These programs are offered in many workplaces, and they usually consist of several free sessions with a licensed professional.
  • Your Health Insurance Some insurance companies offer 24/7 telephone services, such as nurse lines, to people needing to connect with a health professional, including a mental health professional.
  • Telemedicine Mental Health Services A virtual mental health appointment allows you to seek care from your home, often with shorter wait times than an in-person appointment.

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