25 Oct The Ultimate Holiday Depression Survival Guide
*disclaimer: this post may contain affiliate links and mental health triggers… and it will definitely contain curse words, hard truths, hope, inspiration, and love
Holidays can be hard. And weird. And kinda a lot. Such is Life. saylahvee. I know the holiday season is supposed to be the happiest time of the year and yadayadayadaaaaa but I just don’t really share that same sentiment. Holiday depression is real. Which is why I’m lining up my best tips for surviving the holidays and managing your holiday depression.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not like the Grinch or anything. If Holidays are your jam, more power to ya. I’m not gonna like hate on you or rain on your parade or never be your friend (in fact, one of my best friends is absolutely OBSESSED with Christmas) if you love the holidays. Holidays are just not my thing. But I’ve learned to navigate them so hunker down under a cozy weighted blanket with a yummy cup of hot cocoa and let’s dig into my ultimate holiday depression survival guide.
So, writing this post is kinda weird for me and I went back and forth about if I should even share my two cents at all. It’s weird for me because I have LITERALLY no memories of any holidays or birthdays from before I was 24 and the holidays since have been spent working retail or in an involuntary behavioral health facility.
Because I don’t have any memories of my holiday experiences or like participating in ‘holiday’ gatherings and whatnot, I felt a bit self conscious about writing this post. Like, who am I to share thoughts and advice on this if I’m not walking the walk? But I polled my Instagram and it seems that a lot of my holiday struggles are relatable to most people, just in a bit of a different light – if that makes sense? So I figured I’d share some of the ways I’ve been managing my holiday depression.
What’s My Beef with Holidays?
Well, my beef with holidays is that they are basically a big flashing neon sign of all of the things I’ve lost and have not yet grieved. Without spending too much time on this, I should probably share some quick info for backstory purposes that will give some context to my insight around this post…
I haven’t spoken to my mom since I was 19, and 24 was the year I moved to Colorado and had to cut my dad out of my life (I’m 31 now). I do have siblings and I love them more than you know, but it was really hard to maintain a relationship with them when they still speak to our dad (and I think our mom but I’m not totally sure?) and they couldn’t really understand the things that I’ve been through that made me need to cut my parents out of my life. Also I wasn’t comfortable with my parents knowing anything about my life through my siblings. So we don’t really speak much.
I met my fiance, Mike, when I was 22, so he had a couple of years of exposure to my family (sans my mom, he’s never met her) as well as memories that I’ve blocked out from before we moved to Colorado and cut ties. I don’t really know most of what happened to me or what I’ve been through before I was 24 (though I have some thoughts based on current triggers), but Mike reassures me that I don’t remember for a very good reason.
I decided that even though I don’t actually have any memories of holidays and the reasons I do struggle with holidays are kind of different from most, I think many of the same principles and coping skills apply for everyone. So here we go.
My Best Tips for Managing Holiday Depression (and surviving the holidays)
Below are my best tips for managing your holiday depression. There’s of course no exact blueprint for navigating this time of year while struggling with your mental health as we all struggle differently and for different reasons. So take what works for you and leave the rest. Or get weird and tailor some of my advice to make it fit your life better. There is no right or wrong when working through mental health, ya just gotta work.
I think the most common advice when it comes to surviving the holidays and holiday depression (and TBH life in general) is setting boundaries. But most people are not good at setting boundaries for themselves, so you’re in good company if you’ve got some work to do with setting boundaries. I honestly didn’t get good at boundaries until I adapted a somewhat fuck-it-all mindset.
The literal definition of the word boundary is something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent. Boundaries are a part of everyday life, but for some reason when we have to set them, it’s all of a sudden like we’re on a whole other planet. Idk if it’s the people pleaser in us, or an ego kinda thing… but most of us suck at boundaries. saylahvee.
Types of Boundaries for Holiday Depression
The two main types of boundaries that are super important to conquer so you can effectively manage holiday depression are emotional boundaries and financial boundaries (and if you struggle with financial boundaries, make sure to peep the post I linked – it provides super tangible and actionable advice!).
Emotional Boundaries refer to your emotions. Duh. When you have strong emotional boundaries, you are able to separate your feelings from others. When this happens you stop taking responsibility for others, you stop pleasing people, and you stop letting other people dictate how you feel.
Setting strong emotional boundaries helps depression, anxiety, stress, fear, guilt, and resentment. When we set these boundaries, especially during the holiday season, it’s giving us space and structure in order to protect our mental health.
Financial Boundaries refer to your finances. Duh. There’s a lot of pressure, fomo, and yolo vibes during the holidays to go to parties, buy gifts, get-togethers, travel, etc that make people spend their money all willy-nilly. Which is fun in the moment, but not so much when you can’t fall asleep because you are spiraling into a panic about next month’s rent. Or college tuition. Or adopting/saving all the dogs. Or whatever the fuck you’re into spending your money on, but now you can’t because you did not set financial boundaries.
Setting strong financial boundaries helps depression, anxiety, stress, fear, guilt, and resentment. When we set these boundaries, especially during the holiday season, it’s giving us peace of mind and the self control we need in order to protect our mental health and our bank accounts.
The next four sections of this part of the post kinda build off of each other and are interrelated when it comes to setting boundaries.
Know Your Personal Limits
Just like… in general. At what point can you no longer push or it will become destructive if you continue to push? Personally, the main things I think about for me when I think of limits and holidays include my emotional capacity, my social capacity, my need for a full night’s sleep, and how many drinks I can have without waking up with hangxiety the next day. I’m sure there are other things, but those are the biggies.
I know this is gonna sound crazy, but it’s really hard to set boundaries when you don’t know what you need to set boundaries around. LOL jkjk, this should not sound crazy at all. Awareness is key. There’s really not much action with this step, it’s more so about analyzing and having awareness of your limits so you can take action with the steps below.
When you are working through your personal limits and honestly anything around holiday depression, you need to be selfish. It’s okay. Just do it. If you aren’t good with being selfish, read my post about what to do when you’re having a bad day, as I dig into personal permissions and selfishness quite a bit in that post.
Being selfish and saying no (next section down), kinda go hand in hand but I wanted to talk about being selfish first because I think it’s the forefront to saying no.
When you are invited somewhere, or asked to help with a task, or whatever it may be… if it’s giving you icky feels and it’s not life or death, don’t do it. It’s just not worth it. Something I’ve learned about mental health and my boundaries is that the more I push my boundaries, the more I don’t listen to my gut about needing to be selfish, and the less I say no… the more I eventually spiral. And like, that’s not fun for anyone.
Looking back on my boundaries journey...
Some of my involuntary stays in behavioral health facilities could have been mitigated or avoided had I listened to myself and what I needed, rather than what other people needed or wanted from me. And at the end of the day… When I’m not selfish and I push myself too much, I get to a point where I can’t care for myself. My depression and anxiety spikes, I don’t leave the bed, and I get back into really dark thought patterns and heavy suicidal ideation.
I know you love the people who will be bummed when you need to be selfish, but can I tell you something and put it all into perspective?
If you spiral and fall into a deep depression or mental health struggle because you didn’t put yourself first, those people that you prioritized over yourself probably aren’t going to pay for your mental health hospital stay if you spiral too deep (if you’re anything like me and that’s where you typically end up, no shame!!)… and they aren’t going to cover your shift at work if you get too depressed to make it in because you’re emotionally depleted… or pay for your retirement because you lost your job because they didn’t cover your shift when you were too depressed to show up because you didn’t set the boundaries you needed in the first place which is why you need to be selfish (lol obvs this entire paragraph is an excessive exaggeration.. sometimes I just like to throw in bad dad jokes to lighten things up, but you see what I mean, right?).
If you can’t care for yourself how will you show up for others? And will others that you prioritize show up for you when you can’t do life? If you push your boundaries to a point of depletion that will impact you personally, is it worth throwing away your own mental health progress?
You do not owe anyone anything. You are allowed to say no. You don’t have to do holiday things just because you feel like you are supposed to.
What’s that you ask? What are you supposed to do if you’re afraid of letting someone down or they won’t like you anymore if you say no?
Well, excuse my French but they can go fuck themselves. C’est la vie.
Anyone who can’t respect and understand that I am saying no because I need to, doesn’t deserve to be in my life. Anyone who is not compassionate enough to respect and understand that my social anxiety is at its peak and I cannot handle making small talk in a room full of people, doesn’t deserve to be in my life.
If you super super struggling with saying no, just look at it as a test of the good people in your world. If they can’t respect your boundaries and your need to say no, fuck ‘em. #sorrynotsorry
Related: Things to Say Instead of I’m Sorry
Be honest with yourself and others. Be honest about all of the things.
Don’t say no to invites because you need to set that boundary but then lie about why you’re declining. Be honest. Stand in your truth.
“I super appreciate the offer but I’m going to have to decline. Holidays are hard for me. I’m trying to make sure I’m taking care of myself and I am feeling pretty overwhelmed right now. Big social gatherings feel like too much for me. I hope you understand. Let’s get coffee 1:1 instead!”
Sometimes honesty can help you feel more comfortable with saying no. You don’t owe anyone an explanation AT ALL, but if it makes you feel better about saying no, do it.
Also be honest with yourself about if you are using boundaries to avoid and deflect or if you truly need to set the boundary. Don’t use boundaries as an excuse to disappear from the real world from November to January. Boundaries are there to support you as you navigate the world.
Being prepared is honestly the most impactful and helpful part of this post for me. But that’s because of my trauma, PTSD, and lack of memory. I do think this section can translate to others though so keep reading!
This is the most important one for me, and honestly it’s how I function in society just like, day-to-day in general. I’ve noticed over the last several years that when I meet new people and we do the whole ‘let’s get to know each other’ thing, people get very uncomfortable when it’s my turn to share.
I think people don’t typically know how to respond to someone who has a whole family existing somewhere in the world, but they aren’t part of it because it’s not safe or healthy… or like, an entire black hole of 24 years of existence. Like, what do you say to that? Most people say ‘I’m sorry”… and that’s kinda weird too.
So I prepare quick blanket statements and responses
And I have these ready when people want to know more about me, but in a way that hopefully makes them feel a little less uncomfortable for asking seemingly simple and innocent questions. And like, I need to clarify that I know I am not responsible for the way other people feel… but the reason I’ve started preparing statements is because I noticed it makes me feel weird and self conscious when I see people’s facial expressions in response to my situations and it typically makes me sad and aware of how hard and abnormal my life has been. And instead of retreating and avoiding social situations altogether, this is my own personal bandaid, so to speak.
I also prepare responses for when people make assumptions, which also breaks my heart. I worked retail for the last four holiday seasons and a very recurring conversation that made me DREAD holiday season would be something along the lines of:
Customer: “You must be so happy that the store is closed on Thanksgiving/Christmas so you can spend time with your family.”
Me: “Oh yeah I won’t be spending time with them”
Customer: “Oh, that’s such a bummer… why not if the store is closed?”
Me: “Well, I haven’t spoken to my mom for 12 years and my dad for 6 soooo I don’t know what to tell ya lady”
*Mom and daughter look at each other, then back at me, then back at each other*
Customer: “Oh wow I’m so sorry. That must be very tough. I can’t imagine a mother not having a relationship with their daughter or not having a family to spend holidays with. Wow, I’m so sorry.”
Me: “Here’s your shopping bag, thanks for reminding me that I don’t have family to spend holidays with, you can go fuck off now.”
Orrrr something along those lines.
This conversation used to TERRIFY me and weirdly make me feel guilty and ashamed, as well as kick up the heat of my holiday depression, but I’ve narrowed down how to navigate it and I know it like the back of my hand. Having prepared responses to questions that bring up feelings or triggers, is my BEST advice for surviving the holidays and managing holiday depression.
I was talking to a few friends about this and it totally translates to people who struggle with holidays but for different reasons. One of my friends is nervous about having to talk about still being single at 34 at her family’s Christmas gathering. Another is nervous about people asking when she and her husband will start having babies because they don’t want to have kids. Another is nervous because she just lost her job and doesn’t want to talk about it.
Just being prepared can soften the sting a bit and avoid being caught off guard which reduces the social anxiety surrounding holidays which makes it easier to survive.
Handling Family Members with Addiction
I think this is an incredibly important point, but I’m not really the right person to speak on this as a. I cut off my mom who has a very bad addiction problem so I don’t have to ‘handle’ her and b. I don’t do holidays with my family.
There’s a shockingly small number of people writing on this topic, and most of them are recovery facilities and not from the point of view of real people who actually have to manage holidays with their family.
So, I had lots of conversations with lots of people and I’m very grateful for their vulnerability so that I can provide you with tangible ways to navigate based on actions that work for actual real people. But, honestly, it’s never gonna be perfect, it’s not gonna be a cake walk, and it will probably hurt no matter what. This advice is just to help you cope and survive.
- Be Realistic – if dad is always drunk and swears he’ll be sober this year… hope for the best but don’t hold your breath.
- Control only what you can – you are not responsible for the tornado that follows the addict. Don’t make it your burden.
- Feel your feelings – you are allowed to be upset, sad, scared, disappointed, whatever. Feel your feelings
- Go to an alanon meeting – it’s fine if they aren’t your jam all year long, but alanon can provide you with support that’s needed but not easy to find during this time of year.
- Excuse yourself if you need to – you don’t need to be the hero. If you need to step away, do it.
- Build your support system – BEFORE the holidays even get close
Be Proactive and Do Internal Work
So, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed… but holidays are on the same date or day each year. Yet each year we’re all confused when we feel sad and depressed and lonely around the holidays. LOL crazy pills, people. I think a great way to survive the holidays is to think about what bothers you each year, and work on it/gameplan it/whatever before the holidays even approach.
A few common areas to focus on include social anxiety, financial stress, seasonal depression, loneliness, and comparison paralysis. I touched on social anxiety with having prepared responses and financial stress with setting boundaries so I’m not going to go through those again, but here’s the dirt on the other few.
Seasonal Affective Disorder + Holiday Depression
AKA SAD. Though SAD may not be directly impacting the way you struggle with holidays, it can definitely be contributing to how you are feeling, or even exacerbating those feelings.
It’s not uncommon for people to struggle with SAD during the winter season. If you know you struggle with SAD in addition to the holidays, I highly suggest putting some focus on managing your SAD before it even hits.
When I was doing research for this post, I was pretty disappointed to find that every article I read only offered light therapy, talk therapy, medication, and vitamin D to manage SAD. And like, I’m not shitting on these techniques. They do help. Ish. But what really made me question things was the medication part. SAD literally has the word seasonal in it. Antidepressants take an average of 6 months to kick in. How can someone actually suggest to someone who struggles with depression only in the winter to get on meds that won’t kick in till summer, without offering any advice other than buying a light?
But also – BUY THE LIGHT – it’s under $40, thank me later.
I think SAD is impacted by deeper things which are brought to surface during certain seasons and if we take the time to explore, we can find ways to navigate personal struggles without taking meds that won’t fully take effect until the season has passed. And it’ll also take some weight off the plate of struggling with holiday depression.
A few things to consider:
- Winter is cozy snuggle season… are you struggling with being single, going through a divorce, in a bad relationship? Dig into those
- Winter is coined as ‘time for family and loved ones’… do you have family wounds that need healing?
- Winter is cold and we aren’t as active so we might gain weight and feel self conscious… do you need to move your body and change your diet?
- Winter means the end of the year is coming up… did you not do the things you set out to do and now you’re beating yourself up or feel like a failure?
- Winter is dark A LOT, like you might leave your house when it’s dark and get home when it’s dark… are you being intentional about your daily structure and getting outside to see the sun?
I’m sure there are plenty more things to consider but this post is already long enough lol so just keep digging!
When everyone is talking about things that are not in your life like family, gatherings, gifts, whatever… your sense of loneliness becomes easily apparent. Or on the flipside, you might be surrounded by so many people that you don’t actually feel connected to, which reminds you of how lonely you may really be.
The holidays have this weird way of reminding us of how blessed we are, yet showing us what we may be missing, all at the same time. And like, I don’t mean ‘missing’ in a negative way. Sometimes things that are in other people’s lives but not yours, are for a specific reason. But nevertheless, we can know that simple idea in our hearts and still feel lonely, because we cannot control our feelings.
If you know you struggle with loneliness during the winter or holidays, make a game plan. You are going to need to do some work and self reflection but it will be worth it. I honestly feel like it’s hard to give concrete advice on this one because of age, interests, location, situations, etc… and I’m not really one to blow a bunch of smoke and fluff so I’m really not gonna even try. But I can at least tell you a few things that have worked for me.
- Find a sense of purpose
- Find a way to strengthen current relationships – quality not quantity
- Eat at a bar alone and let the bartender know you’re new to the bar and would love to meet any nice regulars (this may only be relevant depending on your level of depression and safety of your location)
- Read mental health forums
Ohhhh the good ol’ pesky comparison game. Comparison paralysis gets REAL during the holidays so if you know this impacts you, take good measure.
Does seeing other people’s holiday decorations or gatherings trigger something for you? Well, maybe block those people from your social media feeds for the holiday season. Or take a social media detox. Or explore why the comparison is triggering you.
Holiday season brings up a lot of room for comparison and shining lights on things we *think* we are missing. Which brings us down, makes us resentful, and maybe even a bit greedy.
If you know the comparison game is something that brings you down during the holidays, accept it, don’t judge yourself for it, and find a way to mitigate it.
I wanted to share a few of my favorite resources to help you kick that pesky comparison habit to the curb:
Limit Your Expectations to Limit Holiday Depression
Personally, I threw expectations out the window somewhere around the year I had to ask my dad to stop bringing hookers instead of my mom to Mother’s Day dinner… but that’s just me. And no, he didn’t stop bringing them, in case you were wondering.
Another common topic that came up when I polled my Instagram in regards to helpful tips for working through holiday depression and surviving the holidays was expectations. Expectations of both others and of ourselves. Unmet expectations lead to negative emotions which in turn, puts a dimmed light on holidays.
At the end of the day, more often than not, expectations end up in a let down so it’s not uncommon for people to feel the heat of expectations around the holidays. There are a lot of expectations and a lot of different reasons for said expectations, usually internal. Host the perfect meal, buy the right gift, receive the perfect gift, get to every single party, mend the strained relationship, and so on and so forth. The expectations are endless.
Whether you struggle with expectations of yourself or expectations of others, I think the following areas of focus can be used interchangeably for each side of the expectation coin.
Focus on what you can control
If you take anything away from this section, take this part. You cannot control everything. So if you have expectations of things that are out of your control, you will ALWAYS leave room to be let down. Keep the ball in your court.
Sometimes our standards for ourselves or others are all out of whack and unrealistic. And for some reason, holidays seem to exacerbate that. Be realistic with the expectations you are setting. This can range from your husband helping in the kitchen, to someone staying sober, to getting the gift you’ve been hinting at… dig deep to think about the things that typically let you down around the holidays and see if your expectations are realistic.
Finding gratitude is a nice way to soften the blow of a let down. Or to just shift your energy from having expectations in the first place. If an expectation is not being met and it’s bringing you down, where can you find gratitude?
A lot of us think we’re good communicators, but we’re really not. Make sure you are incredibly clear in your communication around your wants, needs, and expectations.
Give yourself and others grace. Whether you are dealing with the stresses of Christmas (<- peep this super helpful guide if you are struggling with Christmas stress) if you’re feeling sad and lonely, or if someone was short and snippy.. the holidays are A LOT.
There’s a lot going on during the holidays and you’ll never fully know what everyone is going through. And also, you’re going through a lot too. Just give grace.
If your expectations of others aren’t met, know it’s probably not personal and realize whoever didn’t meet your expectation is only human. Give them grace and be grateful. And assess if you need to reassess your expectations of them in order to not be let down.
If your expectations of yourself aren’t met, just know you have A LOT going on and you’re doing your very best which is all you can do. You showed up and tried, so pat yourself on the back. And assess if you need to reassess your expectations of yourself in order to lighten your load, protect your mental health, and not be let down.
Mental Health Tool Kit for Holiday Depression
Another helpful tip for managing your holiday depression is to build yourself a mental health tool kit (HOT TIP – this can section can also be used as a gift guide for friends who struggle with mental health).
Load up a little mental health bag or bin full of all of the things that make you feel the good feelings and cope with your icky feelings. Keep this easily accessible and use it often.
Some ideas for your Mental Health Tool Kit:
The Best Candle Ever: Capri Blue Volcano
Have you ever smelled an Anthropologie store? Well THIS is what Anthropologie smells like. And you have to wait ALL YEAR until the holidays come around to snag this scent.
Scent Notes: Juicy tarocco orange, apples, sparkling cassis, and lime zest blend with notes of sugared plum, red currant, and berries, grounded in a sweet base of vanilla sugar and creamy musk.
Fuck This Shitshow Journal
It’s full of curse words, sassy activities, mantras, and pretty easy journal prompts, even when you suck at journaling.
Some journal prompts include “Bitch Session” and “Asshole of the Day”
Some positive affirmations includ “Little Girls Cry, Big Girls Say Fuck” and “It’s Better to Be Full of Wine than Full of Shit”
Related: More Easy Guided Journals
'Everything is Going to Be Okay' Inspiration Book
This little book is just a nice little reminder that everything is going to be okay. I actually keep this one on our TV stand for a daily reminder. It’s just an easy little picture book for good vibes, sincerity, optimism, and hope, and the good cheer.
Home Smudging Kit
Smudge away this icky vibes with this home smudging kit. Even if you don’t believe the woo-woo hype, it’s still just a fun little thing to do to ‘reset’ when you are feeling like you need to reach for your mental health toolkit. This smudging kit is the best bang for your buck in terms or quality and amount of product that comes in the kit.
Distract your mind and get in a good giggle with these funny puzzles for adults. Personally, I really like the 101 dogs pooping. I ordered it when I was doing research for this post lol
I love coloring books SO much. But I can only do coloring books with big coloring areas. The mandala coloring books give me SO much anxiety.
The coloring books I am leaving here are all from the same author, Design Originals, and they feature cute themes, bigger coloring designs, and even some guides for what colors to use which I find super helpful as sometimes I want to color, but can’t start because I can’t figure out what color to start with.
And don’t forget some good markers! These are my FAVORITE MARKERS EVER (Mike bought them for me during my first and longest behavior health hospital stay) but kinda pricey so linking a more affordable option as well.
Self Care and Love
And last but not least on this ultimate holiday depression survival guide… we’ve got self care and love, because what kind of mental health survival guide would this be without them?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for at least the last decade, we all know the importance and benefits of self care. And I’m sure most of us have about 1200 self care posts pinned on our Pinterest. So with that being said, I am not going to provide you with the same list of self care advice that every blogger and their dog tells you to do.
Instead, I’m gonna give you something much better!
I found and felt instantly connected to another mental health blog a month or so ago called With Love, Me. The blogger behind the screen Krystian made me feel SO seen and less alone in regards to my mental health journey.
Krystain has a SELF CARE EMAIL COURSE that you can sign up for on her blog that is 100x better than any self care post you’ve pinned and will ensure you ACTUALLY do the self care you need and deserve.
Head over to With Love, Me to grab your self care email course to help you with surviving the holidays, managing your holiday depression, and giving yourself all of the love and care you need!
And that’s a wrap on my Ultimate Holiday Depression Survival Guide
These are my BEST tips for navigating holiday depression.
Pop in the comments below and tell me ALL the things! What do you struggle with most around the holidays, what tips do you have to cope, what tips of mine will you be trying this year?
And just remember, keep your chin up. You are not alone. You’ve got this.