How to cope when holidays bring stress and depression

The holiday season can be a magical time of year. Neighborhoods turn into dazzling displays of light, children meet Santa, and we gather with our loved ones to enjoy each other and indulge in sweet treats.

But the season also comes with a fair share of stress and anxiety — pressure to find the perfect gift, the stress of holiday traffic, memories of lost loved ones, or the prospect of dealing with difficult family members.

We talked to the Mobile Outreach Crisis Team at MultiCare Behavioral Health about maintaining your mental health during a particularly difficult time of year. Silvia Riley is the manager of crisis services. 

Why are the holidays such a stressful time of year?

Riley: The holidays can bring a wealth of emotions for anybody, not just those with mental health diagnoses. It’s a time of year that puts a lot of stress on people, and the stress can turn into anxiety. Traditions may remind us of family and maybe losses we’ve had in the past, and that can turn into depression and grief.

If you’re already experiencing some difficult emotions, the holidays can exacerbate them or make you want to suppress them, which can be dangerous. When you keep your feelings inside, they build up. In our field, we encourage people to talk about their feelings â€” which doesn’t come easy for everyone, we know. But we don’t necessarily mean you have to share the details. You can just share that you’re struggling, you’re feeling down, you’re worried. Reach out to a good friend, your spouse or partner, a parent or other family member, a pastor — whoever you’re most comfortable with. Avoid isolating yourself, especially during this time of year.

It’s important that if you feel like you’re starting to lose control of your emotions or they’re affecting your daily activities, it may be time to seek professional help.

What are some common calls you get during the holiday season?

Riley: We see an increase of people using substances to try to manage their emotions, which is counterproductive. It may be temporary but can become a vicious cycle. You drink so you can cope, but the next morning you feel more depressed, and so on.

How can we lighten the load of stress?

Riley: Anticipate that this is a difficult time for you and make plans accordingly — in writing. It can be as simple or complicated as you like. That way, when you’re experiencing difficult emotions and can’t think straight, you can just pull out the list for help. Here are some ideas:

  • Write down a list of triggers and ways you can cope. What makes you particularly stressed, anxious or worried? For example, if you know you have to go to the mall and crowds stress you out, pick a time of day that isn’t as busy. If you know you’ll hear that Christmas song on the radio that makes you sad, make your own playlist to listen to. If a family member who makes you uncomfortable approaches you at a party, have a plan for excusing yourself. List the trigger and the specific action that will help.
  • A list of contacts you can reach out to. If you want to associate certain people with certain emotions, you can include a specific statement such as, If I feel depressed/angry/hopeless, I will call/text my best friend/my girlfriend/my mom.
  • Things you can do when you’re anxious or depressed: Call a friend, read a specific Bible verse, journal, pet your cat, donate to a charity you care about, volunteer with a local non-profit.
  • Try creating a gratitude journal. Each day, write down one thing you’re grateful for. These can be small things. The point is that it makes you think about the positive things in your life and in the world.

What are some other coping tips you’d highlight this time of year?

Riley: Give yourself permission to say no, and be kind to yourself. The holidays come with a lot of pressure — having beautiful decorations, a spotless house for guests, a busy social calendar of holiday parties. Instead of trying to do it all, prioritize what matters. Which one or two parties mean the most to you? Which decorations could you skip this year? Can you do most of your shopping online to avoid crowds? Can your spouse or partner take on the shopping and you do the cooking?

Focus on what you can control. It’s easy to focus on the negative things that are out of our control, such as the person who was rude to you in line, that driver who cut you off or the massive crowds at the store. It sounds difficult, but it just requires intention. Think about the fact that when you’re out shopping, you’re not working — but the cashiers are. That driver who cut you off is only one driver — everyone else was fine. If crowds stress you out, you can choose to shop online or at the store when it’s less busy.

What are warning signs to look for in loved ones?

Riley: Check in on loved ones if they are isolating themselves, losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed, making comments about feeling hopelessness or hurting themselves — especially if they have a history of mental health struggles. Don’t judge them for isolating, but let them know you’re there for them and want to make sure they’re okay. Reassure them without being prescriptive, because no one wants to be told they should go to a therapist, for example. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a text with care and concern, offering to bring dinner, offering a ride to an appointment, and so on. In extreme cases, you can always call the National Suicide Hotline or local crisis line for advice for a loved one you’re worried about.

Source: MultiCare Health System, a not-for-profit healthcare organization that includes MultiCare Behavioral Health Services (


If you or someone you know is starting to lose control of emotions or exhibiting other troubling behavior, it may be time to seek professional help.

  • Pierce County Health Crisis Line: 800-576-7764.
  • Crisis Clinic of King County: 866-427-4747.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.
  • Crisis Text Line: 741741.