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Depression, the Unwelcome Holiday Guest

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Most of us look toward the holidays with anticipation and expectation, but for some, holidays are anything but joyful or peaceful. In fact, holidays can be a time of increased sadness, pressure, and stress.

We find ourselves trying to create the Norman Rockwell portrait of a perfect Thanksgiving meal or Christmas day and end up feeling let down, disappointed, and overwhelmed. Who said it’s a season of peace and joy?

A survey by the National Women’s Health Resource Center states that two-thirds of women report depression during the holidays. Dr. Kenneth Johnson, a psychiatrist at Columbia St. Mary’s, states in an article, “Depression is higher in the winter months in general, but the biggest cause of holiday depression is unmet expectations.”

I find that many believers seem to struggle with this issue. We make Thanksgiving or Christmas “the event” and pressure ourselves to make “the event” a super-spiritual, picture-perfect memory instead of a day set apart to enjoy family and simply turn our attention to the Creator of the holiday.

I see families stressing over the perfect gift, the perfect dinner, rushing from Christmas programs to parties, from house to house, squeezing in a candlelight service before rushing home to get the last minute gifts wrapped. I’m not saying any of these activities are wrong, but I am asking, Is this what the holidays are about?

Instead of rushing from one event to the next, what if we slowed down and spent time resting with those we love, truly enjoying and celebrating the holiday season? Does it matter if it’s a pot-luck meal thrown together with love instead of turkey and dressing with all the trimmings that mom slaved for a day to cook? How about a family serving together at a homeless shelter in place of the traditional meal? I think that what matters is the focus and attention of our hearts.

When our focus strays from the Creator and to “the day”, no matter what we fill our time or tummy with, we are left empty and often depressed.

Triggers for Holiday Depression

Depression during the holidays can take many forms and have many causes, but according to a study by the Mayo Clinic, there are a few recognizable triggers. The study finds that depression brought on or intensified by the holidays often has three trigger points:

Relationships. There’s nothing “magical” about the holidays. We have a tendency to expect our relationships to be perfect during the holidays. Even in Christian homes, family conflicts are intensified during this time, so be realistic about your family dynamics. If you have a tense relationship throughout the year, Thanksgiving Day may not be any different. Understanding this before the family gathering allows you time to pray and prepare yourself to extend grace to one another. Be understanding; everyone is under increased stress, so be quick to offer forgiveness.

Finances. The pressure to buy gifts, charitable opportunities at every store, holiday travel, and extra food can cause you to feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and sad. Set a giving budget early and stick to it. Label envelopes with the name of the charity, or who the gift is for, groceries, or travel and place the budgeted amount of money in each. Spend only what you have allotted. Give yourself permission to cut back - a small, well-thought-out gift is greatly appreciated. Remember, you aren’t trying to buy happiness or love!

Physical demands. The shopping, parties, programs, and preparations can leave you wiped out, exhausted, and stressed. Be selective – you don’t have to go to every program or party! Take time for a relaxing walk and get enough sleep and you’ll help counter the effects of the stress.

Simply knowing what may trigger depression isn’t enough. We need to be pro-active in our defense against it.

Additional Tips on Overcoming Holiday Depression

Make realistic plans – Don’t stress in attempting to create the Norman Rockwell holiday – a relaxed, cozy Thanksgiving or Christmas with family and friends will create memories for a lifetime. Take time for each of you to share something you are thankful for. Read the Christmas story and talk about the greatest Gift ever given.

Extended families – Plan and schedule visits in advance, communicate openly about expectations, and work together to set a schedule you can all agree on. Create an atmosphere of love and grace for your child.

Negative or sad memories associated with the holidays – First, acknowledge how you feel. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Sit down and allow yourself a little time to face and express your feelings and emotions, confess them to God, and allow Him to cover you in His grace and mercy. Create a new memory by planning something different and even unexpected.

Singles or Single again – Don’t dread sitting at home alone. Take the initiative and invite others to join you, or ask to join a family for the day. Again, it’s okay to admit you feel lonely or sad, but don’t stay there. Grab a friend and do the unexpected.

Take the focus off of you – Volunteer to serve others at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. We all feel better when we help others, and showing the love of Christ to those less fortunate is a wonderful gift.

 Plan – Have a shopping plan or cooking schedule. List similar gifts together and group by stores. Allot yourself a realistic timeframe to accomplish each task. Wandering mindlessly from store to store is exhausting and a waste of time. Schedule your time to purchase your groceries and cook beforehand to make your time productive.

Learn to say NO – You don’t have to say yes to every project, party, or activity. WE make the holidays about doing, NOT God!

TLC – Take a little time each day for yourself and do something you truly enjoy. Sit and rest in the presence of the Father. Let Him refresh and renew you.

If you find that you are unable to work through the feelings of sadness or depression, seek prayer from a trusted friend, consult your physician, or got to your pastor for guidance and help.

The holidays are to be a time of joy, peace, and good-will; taking the time to set realistic expectations and re-focusing our attention on the Creator of the holiday is a good start!


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About The Author


Rebel Taylor is a wife and mother of two teenagers. She is involved in discipleship, teaching, and lay counseling in her home church. Rebel leads their Altar Ministry, writing most of the material she teaches. She also has a heart for missions and travels frequently sharing the heart of Jesus to those in foreign countries. In addition to her ministry within her church, Rebel is a speaker for conferences and retreats throughout Texas and is involved in volunteering at various organizations in her hometown. Rebel has been published in a compilation of stories in the book Give Thanks as well as a