Holiday Depression: How to Beat the Holiday Blues and Avoid Relapse in Recovery

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” — or is it? Find out what causes holiday depression, why it often triggers relapse, and how you can overcome it. Holiday Depression Despite the lyrics “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”, the holiday season is not filled with joy for everyone. In fact, many people suffer from holiday depression, or ‘holiday blues’, experiencing feelings of sadness, loneliness and overall discontent through December and into the new year — and most of these people are not considered clinically depressed. For most, these feeling pass once the holidays have passed. But for those in addiction recovery, these feelings pose an additional risk as they are  common relapse triggers and need to be dealt with appropriately in order to prevent relapse over the holidays. But what is it about the holiday season, a time that is supposed to be filled with joy and happiness, that creates sadness and feelings of depression instead? It is important to understand what causes these feelings before we can understand how to deal with them.

Causes of Holiday Depression

1. Unrealistic expectations.

Everyone wants to have the picture-perfect holidays that you see in movies, on TV, in magazines or store-front windows. Unfortunately, life does not always work that way. You might not have the decorations up in time, your family might need to split their time with in-laws or step-families, the grocery store might not have your favourite brand of mixed nuts. Things will not be perfect, so do not expect them to be. And stay off social media — people do not post photos of themselves crying in the bathroom from stress, they only post happy photos — so stop trying to compare yourself to others.

2. Stress.

Stress is common over the holidays, from trying to think of gift ideas for your loved ones, to ensuring that you have not forgotten a gift for anyone important, and of course shopping in itself can be very stressful. On top of that, there are holiday parties galore which can be a major stressor for those in addiction recovery. Be sure to read our guide to staying sober over the holidays to ensure that these parties do not end up in relapse.

3. Lack of self-care.

During this stressful and busy time many people try to spread themselves too thin. They stop exercising because they ‘do not have time’, or they tire themselves out trying to see all of their family and friends in a short time period and forget to take care of themselves.

4. Family-related issues.

A major contributor to holiday depression is family. Unfortunately, there is a lot of dysfunction in most families, especially larger families, and if you are only going to see certain family members once a year, this is usually the time. This can bring feelings of anxiety, sadness or even anger which are dangerous emotions for those in recovery.

5. Loneliness.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you do not have many close friends or family members, feelings of loneliness are quite normal and can increase your chances of developing symptoms of holiday depression.

How to Prevent Holiday Depression

Holiday depression is something that most people would, of course, like to avoid. But for those in addiction recovery it is even more important to prevent these feelings as in some they may cause relapse. But if you head into the holidays with these tips in mind, staying sober should be much easier.

1. Lower your expectations.

This does not mean to go into the holidays expecting them to be awful. But instead of focusing on them being perfect, know that they will not be. Focus your expectations on simply enjoying the special moments that arise such as wandering the neighbourhood looking at decorations, or making holiday crafts with young people in your life.

2. Maintain your regular schedule and plan ahead.

It is important to stick to your recovery plan even when things get very busy. It may seem easier to put your recovery on the backburner but you must not do this. Instead, tighten up on your daily schedule, and increase your meetings if you are having thoughts about using. Plan your month day-by-day in a calendar and stick to it!

3. Set aside differences.

If you must see family members that make you anxious or uneasy, speak to someone you can trust about it before the event takes place — preferably someone who will be at the same event. For many addicts in recovery, feelings of shame and guilt can surface from thoughts and reminders of past years of inappropriate behaviour. It is important to let someone know that you are feeling this way and ask them to help you through the day if you need it.

4. Reach out.

Again, on the opposite side of the spectrum, if you are feeling lonely during this time of year do not stay home and wallow in your loneliness. Reach out to your sponsor or someone from your meetings. Chances are, there are others in your same position who would love to have someone to spend the holidays with as well.

5. Gift your time instead of things.

Do not let the stress of buying gifts cause holiday depression this year. Gifts are not what the season is intended to be about anyway. Instead, let your friends and loved ones know that you would like to take them out for lunch or treat them to a round of bowling in the new year when things have calmed down. Spending quality time with someone is a far better gift than a scarf or book they may never use. Plus, this will give your bank account a rest as you do not have to spend so much money at one time and can spread it out after the holiday hustle and bustle has come to an end.

6. Do something you feel good about.

An excellent way to beat holiday depression is to do something nice for someone who is less fortunate than you. Help out at your local holiday food, clothing or toy drive, or volunteer to help bring food and blankets to the homeless in cold climate cities.

Holiday Depression Treatment

If you are experiencing depression symptoms over the holidays and they do not go away on their own — or they become so intense that you feel that you might relapse — contact your sponsor or a specialised addictions or mental health counsellor who can help you work through these feelings. Just remember — keep your recovery plan your number one priority, and make sure you take care of yourself this holiday season. Eat well, get lots of sleep and stay focused on recovery. Happy Holidays!