‘tis the season that asks a lot of us.
Sam, I’m dreading the holidays. I have depression, and while I’m working with my psychiatrist to adjust my meds, I’m just not in the right headspace to be cheerful. I’m supposed to spend time with my family, and while I do want to see them, I’m overwhelmed.
I keep thinking about how I’m going to ruin their holiday because I’m just not functional right now. Do I stay home or cut my trip short? Do I “fake it until I make it”? How do I get through this without bringing everybody else down?
Let’s start with a poll from our studio audience. How many of us with mental health struggles have felt personally victimized by the holiday season?
Okay, so maybe you can’t actually see the hands flying up in the air. But if you’re feeling dread about the holidays, you’re not the only one, I promise.
Fun fact: Anxiety during the holidays has something like 88,000,000 results on Google. Millions, my friend. Millions of people who are on that struggle bus with you.
This is a season that comes with a lot of demands on our time and energy.
Even the most mentally healthy person you know has probably had their fair share of meltdowns over burnt sugar cookies and nitpicky in-laws. Throw mental illness into the mix and it’s even more difficult.
It’s an unspoken expectation to be more social, more gracious, and more joyful. There’s also the assumption that you’re financially stable enough to buy gifts, willing to engage in “pleasant” (if not invasive) conversations, crafty enough to decorate or bake, and energetic enough to show up for events — which, if you know anything about depression, you know that this is a tall… if not impossible order.
If I can make just one observation, though. In your question, I can hear a little bit of self-judgment. But the thing is, your feelings about this time of year are so, so valid.
It’s no wonder you’re dreading this season — when you’re already hitting your mental and emotional limit, trying to manage anyone else’s expectations is a lot to ask of you right now.
Here’s something that’s important to remember, though: expectations rarely reflect reality.
Life isn’t light like a romantic comedy, or as perfectly curated as a seasonal window display.
Life is messy. It has ups and downs.
Sometimes the Christmas tree catches on fire or the cat knocks over the Menorah. In this case, your depression has rudely decided to pay a visit during this “most wonderful time of the year,” and while it isn’t fair, it’s also unfair to expect yourself to fake being happy when you’re having such a difficult time.
My advice? Stay home or shorten your trip, but only if you want to. If the holidays are going to worsen your mental health or you just don’t feel like going? That’s a valid choice to make, too.
But if you’re afraid of being with family just because you don’t want to burden them, here’s the truth: Your presence is a gift to the people who truly love you, because the reason for the season — in my opinion — is just being together.
And no doubt, if you spend enough time together, someone is bound to get angry about something trivial. Sometimes the ham is overcooked or your cousin breaks his new fire truck in a record 25 minutes. Your aunt might make “salt cookies” instead of sugar cookies or your mom might make some grating comment about your haircut.
Yes, there will be moments when you roll your eyes, unable to believe that you’re related to any of these people. (I once asked Siri how to tell if a birth certificate has been forged. True story.)
This might be a cliché reminder, but life is short.
If you want to spend time with your family (the operative word here being “want,” because not all of us do — again, 100 percent valid), don’t let the unrealistic expectations of the season deprive you of meaningful time with the people you love.
Love is about supporting each other through all that stuff, unconditionally. Mishaps, misfortunes, and even annoyances are a part of life, and love is about weathering all of that together. That includes the bigger challenges, too, that always seem to bubble up around this time.
Dealing with depression, anxiety, or grief? You definitely aren’t alone. Maybe you hit triple-cherries this year and you’re dealing with all three — I’ve been there, too.
And? You are still just as deserving of that unconditional love as anybody else.
Lucky for you, unlike your uncle’s nasty cold, depression isn’t contagious. In fact, spending time with people who care about you might be the distraction you need while you and your clinicians sort out your meds.
If you need some shortcuts to make spending time with family a little more manageable, though, here are some quick tips from yours truly:
- Movies are your friend. If you’re not feeling social, ask to put on a classic holiday movie (those rom coms are good for something, at least!).
- Games are great distractions. When conversations are becoming triggering, a board game (or a game on your phone, like “heads up”) is always a great option to redirect everyone’s attention.
- Take breaks if you need them! A quick walk, a shower, or a phone call to a friend can be a helpful reprieve.
- Stay sober if you’re able to. This might seem counter-intuitive, but alcohol is actually a depressant, so it’s not the best choice for dealing with holiday stress.
- Use the buddy system. Create a group text with friends who “get it,” and check in periodically when things get stressful.
- Set (and keep) your boundaries. If you need space, a change in conversation topics, or even a nap, it’s okay to say so, and you’re not responsible for how other people react to you setting those boundaries.
Most importantly, though, please remember that you don’t owe anyone “holiday cheer.”
You are allowed to show up in the world exactly as you are, no matter the season. And by being honest about your capacity and what you need, you’re giving those around you permission to do the same.
I won’t sign off with “happy holidays,” because you know, it’s not always holly-jolly here in crazy town. Instead, I’m going to thank you, because it takes courage to name your fears, and I’m grateful for the example that you’ve set by talking honestly about your feelings.
So thank you for that — I hope you’ll carry that courage with you into the new year.
Sam Dylan Finch is a writer, positive psychology practitioner, and media strategist in Portland, Oregon. He’s the lead editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline, and co-founder of Queer Resilience Collective, a wellness coaching cooperative for LGBTQ+ people. You can say hello on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.