Holiday Depression: Strategies for Overcoming Seasonal Stress

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Sometimes as we age, the holidays no longer seem very jolly, and we don't feel like celebrating much anymore. What used to be a joyous occasion can change and take on new meanings as life throws us curve balls.

We think we're supposed to be exceptionally happy this time of year, but that expectation alone can cause people of all ages to become sad or depressed. Caregivers and older adults are especially susceptible to the holiday blues. “As a caregiver, you can be prone to adopting your loved one's melancholy feelings or anxiety and vice versa,” says Leslie Dunham, LCSW, a social worker at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

While the holidays may not be the same as they were in the past, there can still be plenty of reasons to celebrate. One of the most important things to remember is that it's okay to enjoy the holidays as they are now. Old memories hold a special place in your heart, but there is always enough room to add new ones.

Knowing what exactly is triggering these gloomy feelings during the winter season can help you find ways to cope and feel better.

Dealing With Death During Holidays

Dunham reveals that one of the biggest challenges for families is losing a loved one. Whether the loss is recent or it occurred a decade ago, this time of year often highlights absences and brings intense feelings of grief, loneliness and emptiness. You may even feel guilty if you find yourself having a good time.

Innocent gestures may also spur feelings of sorrow. For instance, receiving a holiday card addressed to your late loved one from a well-meaning friend who doesn't know the circumstances may cause your grief to resurface. On the other hand, it can also be stressful when family and friends purposely don't mention your loved one's name to avoid upsetting you.

These feelings are all normal, but to help you get through these tough times, talk about how you would like to handle the situation with someone you trust. That person can then communicate your wishes to others. If you want to do something to honor your loved one, there are different ways you can pay tribute. Choose whatever feels right. Consider the following ideas:

  • Place the person's picture in a place of prominence at home.
  • Light a memorial candle.
  • Make a photo album of previous holidays together to focus on positive memories.
  • Set aside a time so that everyone who wants to can share a memory or a funny story about the deceased.
  • Toast to your loved one.
  • Go to church or synagogue.
  • Volunteer to help those in need.

Remember that not everyone grieves in the same way. There is no accepted norm. You may cry at the drop of a hat, while someone else is more stoic. Some people may grieve for weeks, and others mourn for years. Understand that the holidays won't be the same as they used to be, but recognize that the “new normal” can be fulfilling in other ways.

Stress Over Too Much to Do

Another thing that can cause stress is pressure from family and friends to continue holiday celebrations the same way they have been done in the past.

Nothing can ruin a holiday faster than having too much on your plate. By default, caregivers are already busier than the average person, and adding decorations, holiday meals, and shopping to the mix is enough to undermine anyone’s holiday spirit.

To keep from feeling overwhelmed and out of control, Dunham offers the following suggestions:

  • Focus on what you and your loved one need instead of what others expect of you.
  • Be realistic.
  • Accept help when others offer it and ask for help when you need it. It makes other people feel good to help those they care about.
  • Prioritize and downsize holiday tasks. Decide which decorations are most important to you and compromise. For example, put up the tree lights and the mantle decorations, but skip the outdoor lights this year. The same idea applies to dinner, gifts, etc. Don't make a ham, a turkey, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes. Sick to two or three favorite dishes instead of six or seven. You could also start a new tradition of a potluck meal. If everyone brings a dish to share, it significantly lightens your load.
  • Make lists. It often helps to see what exactly needs to be done, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment when you cross off completed tasks.

Financial Pressure During Holidays

Finances are another notorious source of stress during the holidays. Money is often already tight for seniors and caregivers alike. Spending also tends to increase this time of year on things like gifts, holiday meals and heating. Dunham offers these suggestion for coping with financial worries:

  • Set a budget. This is important for managing your finances year-round, but it can be very helpful to take a closer look at your income and expenses before planning celebrations and purchasing gifts. Making a budget may seem like a bummer, but it’s far better than realizing after the holidays that you spent far more than you could afford.
  • Remind your loved ones that less expensive gifts can be just as thoughtful and useful as more expensive ones.
  • Make baked goods or create handcrafted gifts for family and friends.
  • Have your family members draw one or two names for gifts, instead of having everyone buy presents for each person. This may help other family members save money as well.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to mail cards or buy presents. Take care of a few items each day to complete tasks with minimal stress and expense.

Avoiding Holiday Depression

There is no reason to wait until depression happens to act on it, because there are approaches that can help prevent and minimize the symptoms. Generally, what can help is not being too hard on yourself for the difficulty you may be experiencing. Try to:

  • Keep a regular schedule and build in breaks. Adequate rest is crucial, especially during the hectic holiday season.
  • Avoid feeling guilty for picking and choosing which holiday gatherings you and your loved one can attend.
  • Make sure you and your loved one get regular exercise. Unfortunately, it's typical for people to stop doing the healthy things they usually do because of holiday activities and the inclement weather. Make exercise a top priority, even it’s only twenty minutes each day.
  • Avoid overeating at every meal. Save indulging for special meals, like the big family dinner or the pot luck at work. Balancing indulgence with light, healthy meals will help you feel less lethargic and improve digestion.
  • Be careful about the amount of alcohol you drink.

Remember that the real meaning of the holidays is to be thankful for what you had, what you have now and what the future will bring. Be honest and recognize that the holidays may not be the same as they once were. Talk with people you trust about how you are feeling. You can also find a support group, where you can discuss your thoughts with those who are facing similar difficulties. It may be wise to make an appointment with your doctor as well. He or she can suggest medications and nonpharmaceutical options to help you feel better.


Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital offers comprehensive care, subacute beds, a dementia care unit, and a specialty hospital with geropsychiatric beds. In addition, Levindale operates two adult day care centers.

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4 Comments

How do you care for a Mother (that one that had me didn't raise me and I don't need another Mother) she is Bi-Polo is on medication but I think sometimes she gets them mixed up Some days she is fine other days like today she is controling and demanding other days she is full of life and laughter and other days she can be so hurtful that I feel like I am walking on egg shells Her Doctor doesn't see this or think she has this so when I mention this he looks at me at says maybe it is you that is causing her to act like this She is negative always putting me down and doesn't like anything I do around the house or how I go grocery shopping or even the food I cook She wants everything is her way and doesn't understand fiances are very tight She feels it is her money she can do with what she wants and I can't help her to understand the stress and pressure I am under I can't even take care of myself I only take care of her 12 hours a week and some alimony which is barely enough to keep body and soul together but she just doesn't understand She blames me for everything My lack of work my seperation from my husband and the lack of money we have She is totally dependent on me She wont even wash a small pan or dish out She doesn't get it I only take care of her in the morning the rest of the time it is my own time She thinks this caregiver position is 24/7 She has a mind of her own and no matter what I do it is wrong I even told her what my Doctor said that it is Stress and Anxiety from everything she is putting me through along with my husband I just want out I can't even afford the co-pays or I would go back into therepy and back on Meds so then I won't care what anyone says or does and it won't bother me like it does I am doing my best but no one sees it Any advice or sugguestions Hurting and Alone
santababy266, first and foremost, unless your Mom's doctor knows something specific that you have been doing to your Mom, what he/she said is jaded, non-objective and contrary to sound principles and practices of geriatric medicine and the associated conditions that are part and parcel of that picture. Then again, your Mom's doctor may think he or she knows some positive "fact" that create a trigger to your Mom's bi-polar symptoms? Have you asked your Mom's doctor what he/she thinks you do "to cause" your Mom to conduct herself in the manner you have described?

If there is any truth to what the doctor is trying to signal to you, it may be worth hearing. If there is no truth to what the doctor is saying, sounds like you need to find an objective and experienced doctor for your Mom who ensures that her bi-polar illness is all that is going on with her and not anything else that may be fueling her anger, lack of connection to the reality of her financial situation, anxiety, etc. Most importantly, make haste to find a doctor who is not a communications tyrant, but a strategic partner with the patient's primary caregiver.

The other thing you may want to consider is whether you need to start planning alternate living arrangements for your Mom, be it assisted living and/or other long-term health care options. Your Mom's bi-polar illness and possibly her other symptoms are whatever they are. No sense trying to change her behavior(s) because you cannot. Most definitely, she will continue to "have a mind of her own," which is a sign that she is thinking, sensing, expressing and feeling.

My opinion only from everything you have shared, is that it is not your Mom who is "putting you through" the situation you describe. You and I choose how and whether we react to stressful situations, whether we go along to get along
Your articles help me immensely. I have lost two wonderful husbands, a dear boyfriend, and most recently my cousin who to me was my sister, cousin and best friend all rolled into one.

In addition, though my dear 93 year old Mom still insists on living by herself, I make sure I am with her very often. However, I have spent this last week alone, decorating for the holidays........just me and my two loving doggies.....and though I am missing my loved ones who have passed, my two little doggies and I are enjoying our "quiet" time together.

Your wonderful articles help me to deal with the many emotions I am experiencing, especially at this time of year. I am trying to reverse my way of thinking. Instead of feeling totally depressed because of all my past losses, I now try to savour each memory and thank God for those wonderful years, and as your reading above explains.....make new memories. I wish you Happy Holidays, and thank you for your articles which are bringing me peace. God bless....Linda