Facing the Holidays With Major Depression When Family Is a Source of Stress

Both the holiday season and family are major stressors for most people. Even at other times, family can trigger uncomfortable feelings and memories. For those who also struggle with depression, time with family during the holidays can quickly escalate to symptoms. Keep up with treatment, set boundaries with family, practice good stress management, and take care of your own needs first to get through this difficult time.

For many people, family is a source of joy and comfort. For others, family triggers stress and even depression. The holidays can also be a major source of anxiety and depression. For anyone struggling with family-triggered depression and stress, the holidays become a powder keg with the potential to blow.

Understanding what causes distress, good management of your depression, avoidance of triggers, and useful coping strategies can help you get through the holidays, even if you have to spend time with family.

Coping With and Managing Major Depression

The first step to facing the holidays with stressful family situations is to manage your depression. Major depression is a mental illness and mood disorder that causes low moods, sadness, fatigue, apathy and loss of interest in activities, changes in eating and sleeping habits, difficulty concentrating, and suicidal thoughts.

Depressive episodes may persist for days or weeks with little relief, but treatment is effective. Treatment for depression usually includes therapy and medications. You can benefit from outpatient therapy, but if you have been struggling with depression for a while, consider residential treatment.

A solid foundation of dedicated treatment gives you the tools you need to manage this mental illness over time and especially in stressful situations like holidays with family. Some of the things you’ll learn in treatment that you can carry with you and benefit from later include:

  • The ability to recognize depression triggers before they cause an episode
  • Strategies for managing those triggers
  • Strategies for changing negative thoughts and behavior patterns
  • Coping mechanisms for stress and depression
  • Improved communication skills
  • The ability to set boundaries with people who cause you stress
  • Tools for processing and managing recurring memories or thoughts of past trauma
  • The medication that works best for you with the fewest side effects
  • Positive lifestyle habits that reduce stress

How Family and Holidays Contribute to Stress and Depression

Even if you love your family, and even if you do not have a traumatic past, your family can be a source of stress. This is normal. If you do have traumatic memories from childhood or problematic relationships with parents or siblings, the stress of being around family is heightened. Why is family so stressful? There may be several reasons:

  • A traumatic childhood leads to lingering stress and may be an underlying cause of depression. The effects of abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and other traumas don’t end with adulthood, and seeing family reminds you of this past.
  • Even non-traumatic memories can elicit stress. Maybe you always felt your parents favored a sibling or that they had unreasonable expectations that you didn’t achieve. Your family may put pressure on you to be or act a certain way when around them. Or, maybe you simply never got along well or have always struggled with effective communication.
  • Changes in family dynamics may also trigger stress or depression. Seeing aging parents, for instance, or a self-destructive sibling can be very stressful.

The holidays also contribute to stress and depression. There are expectations to meet and resulting disappointments. Events and holiday chores demand your time and attention. Money problems can flare up right now. Social anxiety may also be an issue if you have parties to attend. Combine these stressors with family, and you will likely be facing a recurrence of depression.

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Tips for Coping with Family and Depression During the Holidays

Going through treatment was your first step in better coping with family and holiday expectations and gatherings. If you have been doing well since then but dread the upcoming season, consider boosting treatment. Talk to your therapist, add sessions, or go to your support group. Prepare yourself for facing difficult situations.

1. Manage Your Holiday Schedule and Set Boundaries.

A busy holiday schedule is a major source of stress for many. Control it before it has the power to overwhelm you. Create a calendar of events and chores so you know what to expect and can prepare for each one accordingly.

Use this planning time to consider your limitations. Can you really attend all of the events to which you have been invited and still manage your depression? If not, decline some of the invites and choose the events you think you can handle. Set boundaries for chores too. Don’t put too much on your plate and limit expectations. If putting up outside decorations this year seems like more than you can handle, skip it.

2. Find an Ally for Family Events.

When you do have to attend a family gathering, contact someone you trust and feel safe with, like a sibling or cousin. Go to the event together, stick with each other throughout, and keep an eye on one another. You can each intervene in situations causing the other stress, such as an argument. Having someone on your side will help you feel better going into an event and should ease your stress during it.

3. Stay Sober at Family Gatherings.

Whether or not you struggle with substance use disorders, staying sober is a smart strategy. Alcohol elevates emotions and lowers inhibitions. It can cause fights and outbursts. For you, staying sober will support good mental health and help you better cope with the existing stresses. You don’t need to add another stressor to your list, which alcohol certainly is.

4. Know When to Walk Away, and Don’t Be Afraid to Do It.

When everything threatens to boil over with family, walk away—literally. Maybe it’s your aunt bugging you about your job or when you’ll get married; it could be that racist uncle who is being inappropriate; or your brother is starting a fight. Whatever the situation, if it starts to feel overwhelming, excuse yourself.

Go outside for a breather for a few minutes or take a little longer to walk off the stress, anger, and anxiety. The slight embarrassment you might feel at disappearing for a few minutes is much better than a blowout fight or saying something you’ll regret. Pull your thoughts together, use a calming strategy, and plan what you’ll do when you go back to the party. If you need to for your own health, simply leave and go home.

5. Quiet Negative Thoughts With Positive Mantras.

Triggering family members have the power to make you think negatively about yourself, no matter how much work you have put into treatment and therapy. Be prepared to battle those negative thoughts that crop up by using positive mantras.

As soon as a bad thought creeps in, like “I’m worthless and disappointing to my family,” replace it instantly with something else: “I am worthy of love,” “My family can’t make me feel this way,” or “I have value.” Repeating positive thoughts helps change a persistent negative mindset, but it should be a personal affirmation, one that is meaningful to you.

6. Maintain Your Healthy Habits.

In the face of stress, it’s easy to justify extra desserts, taking a break from exercise, or skipping your daily meditation. In treatment for depression, you probably learned a lot of skills and developed healthy habits that help you manage symptoms. Don’t drop them now when you most need them. Continue to eat well, get enough sleep, avoid alcohol, exercise, and practice your relaxation techniques and coping mechanisms.

This is a tough time of year for many people and for a lot of different reasons. With depression, you may feel that time spent with family is just too much and too stressful. Put yourself first right now and do what is best for you. Don’t worry about disappointing others. If they love you, they will understand your limitations.

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.