It’s Not Always Depression, Sometimes It’s the Holidays

It’s Not Always Depression, Sometimes It’s the Holidays

–by Hilary Jacobs Hendel

There are many myths and “shoulds” about how families and holidays should be: Families should love each other. Families should get along. Holidays should be fun…To name but a few. The fact is: Many people do not have happy families, happy family memories or happy holidays. Therefore, holidays and families may trigger us to states of anxiety, shame, and misery. Perhaps your child is mean and insulting to you, or you have an alcoholic uncle that makes everyone tense, or you endured abuse or neglect yourself and the holidays trigger you into a depressed mood, or you feel lonely even though people are all around you. These kinds of experiences are tough and can make the holidays challenging.

Christopher spent years in a harsh and joyless household. Years of therapy helped, so he had a satisfying life until November. Then, every year like clockwork, his anxiety rose and his mood plummeted. Dread set in as he anticipated the tough two months ahead. Seeing his friends and colleagues happy and excited about the holidays made him feel worse.

Alison was close with most of her family members. But she hated her brother’s wife who was consistently mean to her. Just the prospect of being in the same room with her sister-in-law filled Alison with dread.

We can drink till we forget or deal with holiday misery in healthier ways. The Change Triangle is the guide I use to work with painful emotions. Instead of blocking our core survival emotions, which can lead to anxiety and depression, the Change Triangle teaches us how to notice and be with our emotions so we stay connected to our authentic self. It is important for our wellbeing to validate our emotional truth, to give ourselves compassion, and to think through how to best get through tough events.

Christopher needed support and encouragement to let himself be sad. He wasn’t depressed, which is more a result from suppressed emotions. Chris was appropriately sad from a real loss—the loss of the family he had always wanted but never had. Christopher learned to give himself permission to be sad when he felt sad, to not fear his sadness but instead to honor it. When he allowed himself the freedom to feel, he found that he had many moments during the day when he felt better. Taking it one day at a time, he got through the holiday season by honoring his feelings, being kind and compassionate to his suffering, and remembering the holidays would be over soon and his mood would improve.

Alison had a few new strategies to survive her sister-in-law this year. For example, she would actively work with her emotions in real-time. When she noticed herself feeling anxious, she would turn loving attention to the anxious sensations in her body, take deep belly breaths and strive to name and validate the underlying core emotions like sadness, anger, and fear. She didn’t judge her emotions because emotions just are—they happen automatically. Validating her underlying anger each time her anxiety rose by simply saying to herself I am angry and that makes sense since my sister-in-law is mean to me, was a huge help in calming down her nerves. It didn’t make the anger go away, but it did help her get through the day without wanting to explode.

To help get through the holidays, I offer 5 tips to help whether you are a tired and frazzled parent or a traumatized young adult.

  1. Don’t avoid your emotions. Instead validate them. Work the Change Triangle.
  2. Give yourself compassion. Notice if you are being hard on yourself or blaming yourself and instead be compassionate to your suffering. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend.
  3. Remember that emotions are temporary (even though they may feel like they will last forever).
  4. Remember to kindly yet firmly set limits and boundaries. Don’t let yourself be abused. We can all learn to do this even though it is never easy.
  5. Try a new approach. Family members often get stuck in roles. For example, I suggested to Alison that she try an experiment: to win her sister-in-law over by walking right up to her, looking her in the eyes, and finding something to compliment her on: her earrings, outfit, shoes etc. By taking the high road, you get back some control. Kill them with kindness, as they say.

Finally, if the holidays are hard for you, you are not alone. This Thanksgiving I deeply missed my daughter and my sister. My experience has taught me that the holidays bring forth a generous cocktail of emotions for all people. It takes work, courage and education on emotions to manage skillfully. In the words of psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, “Everyone is much more simply human than otherwise, be we happy and successful, contented and detached, miserable and mentally disordered, or whatever.” And that applies to the holidays…

I hope you add to the list above with your own tried and true strategies for getting through the holidays. Even better, share them in the comments below.


EXCITING NEWS! Hilary’s book, It’s Not Always Depression (Random House, Feb. 2018), is now available for pre-order at

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is author of the book, It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House, Feb. 2018). She received her BA in biochemistry from Wesleyan University and an MSW from Fordham University. She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. She has published articles in The New York Times and professional journals. Hendel also consulted on the psychological development of characters on AMC’s Mad Men. She lives in New York City. For more information and free resources for mental health visit: Twitter: @HilaryJHendel Instagram: thechangetriangle YouTube Channel: The Change Triangle