Depression, Holidays, and a Major Pandemic: Getting Through the Perfect Storm

As the pandemic reaches a second, worse peak this winter, everyone faces the perfect storm of mental health challenges: ongoing isolation and lockdowns along with typical holiday stress and pressure. If you struggle with depression, this time of year is likely always difficult. This year it may feel overwhelming, but there are steps to take to prepare for a relapse, to minimize symptoms, and to ride out this storm until next year.

For someone struggling with depression, the holiday season can be tough. Even for people without diagnosed depression, this supposedly happy time of year can bring on a case of the blues. Add a global pandemic surging again, and triggers for a mood relapse abound.

If you or a loved one has depression and is dreading the upcoming holidays, be proactive. Make a plan to cope, reach out to those who support you, and get back in treatment if necessary. Also take comfort in knowing that this won’t last forever. There is a new year just around the corner.

Depression and the Holidays: Why Christmas Makes You Sad

Holiday depression is a well-known phenomenon. If you already struggle with depression, this time of year can be a big trigger for a lot of reasons:

  • The holidays come with a lot of expectations, many unreasonable. When you can’t live up to the expectation of being joyful, affording gifts, and going to parties, it feels like an extra letdown.
  • The holidays are stressful. Try to meet all those expectations, and you will get stressed.
  • There can be a fear of missing out and an enhanced sense of isolation this time of year. You see others who seem to be having more fun than you. Social comparison is a known trigger for depression.
  • The holidays magnify financial problems. This time of year is expensive, and if you struggle with money, it only highlights that source of stress.
  • Grief is also intensified during the holidays. If you are still coping with the loss of someone close to you, this time of year is particularly hard.
  • The weather, gray skies, and shorter days also contribute to seasonal depression.

How the Pandemic Triggers and Worsens Depression

With the holiday season this year comes a global pandemic surging for the second time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collected data on mental health and substance use over the summer and found that depression, anxiety, and trauma symptoms all rose. Also increasing during the pandemic were suicidal thoughts and substance use.

Now, as the holidays begin, the pandemic has once again worsened, increasing the likelihood of closures, shutdowns, and depression. The pandemic is triggering depression in many ways:

  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • Limited interactions with family
  • Worry for elderly or sick loved ones
  • Fear and uncertainty
  • Financial stresses
  • Childcare and work situations

Adding to what everyone experienced with the pandemic last spring is the fact that holiday plans must be cancelled due to the surge. Isolation stretches on, and beloved family traditions are put on hold.

Begin Your Recovery Journey.


Take Theses Steps to Get Through Holidays 2020

Your depression, the holidays, and the pandemic have conspired to create a perfect storm for a mental health crisis. You don’t have to let it overwhelm you, though. Maintain the mindset that you have control over your own attitude, thoughts, and actions, even if the rest of the world seems out of control.

1. Prepare, Prepare, and Prepare Some More.

Don’t simply go into the holidays like a train at high speed with no plan for how to put on the brakes. That’s a recipe for disaster. You’ve been through the holidays before, and this is the second wave of pandemic, so you know what triggers you in these situations.

Outline your triggers and make a plan for how to cope with them. For example, if the high expectations at Christmas get you down, set limits now. If you know the isolation of the pandemic causes depression symptoms, put online gatherings with friends and family on your calendar now.

2. Focus on What You Can Control.

One of the most distressing things about the pandemic for most people is the lack of control. Terrible things are happening, and it feels like we can do nothing to help but sit in our homes in isolation. To manage that feeling and to minimize depression, list the things you can control right now.

In terms of the holidays, you cannot control other members of your family who insist on getting together in spite of safety restrictions. You cannot control how family reacts when you tell them you are worried about the health risks of a big Christmas dinner. What you can control are your own actions. Set up a virtual get together with family members who feel the same way and limit interactions with those giving you a hard time.

3. Take a Social Media and News Detox.

Comparing yourself to others during the holidays is all too easy on social media. People craft careful posts that project an image of joy and celebration. It gives you a false sense of failure in comparison to others. Avoid it all by taking a break from social media.

Watching the news has a similar effect on depression, but for a different reason. Seeing the pandemic numbers rise and political turmoil increase only increases that sense of being out of control. Limit your consumption of news to once or twice a day and then turn it off.

4. Get Outside.

It’s tempting to hunker down at home during this perfect storm of increasing infection rates, cold weather, and rising depression. No matter how cold or gray it is out, being outside will boost your mood. Make time every day to at least take a walk around the block. Once you get going, you may just find that it feels good and that you want to walk longer.

5. Keep Up Healthy Habits.

Don’t use seasonal depression to slack off on what you know are healthy, supportive habits. It may be tempting to start drinking more, to stop cooking healthy meals and eating more junk, or to sit on the couch instead of exercising. Avoid this slide, which will not help you feel better. If you struggle with motivation to keep up good habits, enlist a trusted friend to hold you accountable. Go for safely distanced walks together and share notes on healthy, home-cooked meals.

6. Set Boundaries but Don’t Isolate.

Difficult family members are a major source of holiday stress as reported by most people. The expectation of going to parties and being happy about it is another. Remember that you are under no obligation to put yourself in situations that harm your mental health.

If you cannot face that party, even a safe Zoom party, don’t do it. If the thought of seeing your sister at a small Christmas dinner triggers major anxiety, don’t go. You must set boundaries for your own mental health.

On the other hand, setting boundaries can lead to isolation that worsens depression. Pick and choose social events so that you avoid the ones you cannot handle and participate in those that will help boost your mood. Reach out to those you trust and who support you, even if all you can do is talk on the phone or enjoy a coffee virtually.

7. Get Treatment.

There is no reason you cannot get mental health treatment during the holidays. If the season along with the pandemic leaves you overwhelmed despite your efforts at self-care, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s not a weakness—more like a tune-up or even a survival strategy.

Go to therapy sessions or support groups; increase any current therapy you have; and if you really need help, consider spending a month or two in a residential facility. These treatment centers are great places to spend the holidays for healing, coping, and preparing for a better year in January. Treatment will set you up for success and to thrive, while trying to struggle through on your own is just surviving.

During this storm of terrible conditions, remember that there are things you can control. You may be struggling now, but you do not need to let it take you down completely. Be proactive, set limits with people who trigger you, reach out to those who don’t, and above all get professional help as needed.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental health issues. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.