Hacking depression during the holidays.

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“We’ve been here before,” she tells me. “You know this.” 

Sitting across from her, I realize we come to this place every year. Around this time. It’s not surprising that I end up in this same place annually. 

I’m sitting in my therapist’s office and we are talking about the feelings that tend to sweep in and take over as the year winds down. 

This time of year is hard for me. I know, I know, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year.” But my depression spikes during the months where the sun makes less appearances and the calendars take a chill pill for some winter hibernation. Instead of rejoicing in the rest, my depression often takes this period of time to hiss in my ear, “Things are slowing down now… were you invited to enough holiday parties? Do you really matter? Will there be anything significant for you to do next year?” 

I realize this sounds crazy. But I also realize I am not alone and maybe someone reading this is thinking, “Wow. Yes. I’m right there with you.” In that case, all my honesty is worth it. 

So back to my therapist. Her telling me we’ve been here before. I’ve been seeing her for four years now and it’s long enough to know we have a pattern on our hands. Something in my brain starts firing as October passes the torch off to November. Something inside of me grows fear that I’ll tumble back into a bottomless depression because that’s what happened four November 18th’s ago. 

“You need to hack your life,” she tells me. “We aren’t going to be surprised this is happening. But we are going to build some rhythms and routines to prevent the feelings from going any further.” 

I like this idea of hacking my life. This feels proactive to me. And she’s right, there are going to be times in your own walk with mental illness where you need to hunker down and get ready to fight harder. You need back up. You need ammo. You need to be ready for sneak attacks. You need to fill the bunker with all the materials possible so you stay ready for the curve balls of depression. 

Maybe I’ve been quieter in this place recently. I’ve been doing a lot of hacking. A lot of preparing. It takes a lot of energy and time. But my health is important to me. It fuels everything else. So I am thankful for this time of training and preparing to fight if I need to. 

My journey is far from perfect but I am learning every single day. Here are a few of my most precious hacks I’ve developed over the years to keep me engaged in the holiday season when depression wants to steal the script:

Hack Your Depression this Holiday Season

Surround yourself.

I know how tempting it is to isolate yourself. It’s tempting to cancel plans or not make them in the first place. The prospect of sitting on the couch in your coziest sweatpants with nothing on the agenda but Netflix is the most tempting thing in the world but does it really help? Sure, an hour of Netflix might be relaxing. But a Netflix binge when you’re known to be stuck in your feelings on a regular basis won’t end up aiding anyone, especially not you. 

Go against your comfort zone. Make plans with friends. Invite people over to your home for some festive holiday coffee and treats. Do something that feelings like the opposite of what you want to do. I know this isn’t the most popular wisdom. People say you can’t “fake it until you make it” but I don’t always buy that. I think you have to fight extra hard against the feelings of depression and what that glowering sadness wants you to do with yourself. 

You need to surround yourself with some better voices. Get around people. 

Speak it out.

Speaking of better voices— I challenge you to speak your struggle out to the people you love and trust. It doesn’t have to be a 500 word essay or a long, dramatic monologue. You can simply say, “Listen, I might not have told you this before but I really struggle during this time of year. There’s a temptation to isolate and my depression gets a little worst. Could you check in on me every once in a while?”

We need to dispel the lie that asking for someone to check in with you, hold you accountable to living your better life, is weak. Asking people to surround you in the battle for your brain is not weak, it’s wise. 

Depression wants you to go through the trials alone. It wants you isolated so it can speak sad things into you. The best thing I’ve learned to do in my battle is ask others to come into the mess with me. I invite them into the ring. They don’t need a tutorial or even a lesson. They simply put on the boxing gloves and they join me in speaking truth and goodness in the spaces where fear wants to take over.

Have a battle plan.

This one is huge for me. It’s my mental *sometimes physical* checklist of all the things I know need to be in my rhythms and routines for me to live my healthiest life. My routines are my weapon against depression. People often don’t understand why I emphasize discipline so much. My reasoning is simple: without it, I tend to flounder. I live half alive. I don’t own my full potential when I don’t dedicate myself to discipline. And time is so short and precious, I want as much of it as I can have. 

So my mental checklist looks like this:

  1. Making dates with friends AKA not isolating. 

  2. Taking my medication every single day AKA not skipping/missing.

  3. Eating for my health AKA not expecting sugars + fried foods to be kind with my mind.

  4. Working out at least 3 times a week AKA extra serotonin. 

  5. In the word daily AKA filling my brain with the right stuff.

On any given day, my mom or Lane can see if I am off… if a mood isn’t really matching up… and they can ask if all 5 things are there. 

Lane isn’t afraid to ask if I’ve taken my medication the last few days. My mother is the first to ask if I am having too much takeout. My mom tries to be sly and ask what interesting things I’m reading in the Scriptures these days if she thinks I might be off balance, off my routine. 

Let others into your checklist. Invite them to call you out. Because calling you out really looks like call you up to something better. 

Go through the motions.

This is likely another not-so-popular opinion that you would go through the motions of things even when you don’t feel like it. I say it because I’ve had to preach to this myself over and over again: Hannah, these feelings want you to never move forward. These feelings want to convince you you’ll never experience joy. Do the things anyway.

What are the things you love about this time of year? 

Do you normally love the lights? Make it a point to go see them.

Do you normally love Hallmark Movies? Make it an end-of-the-day treat. I am a big fan of rewarding myself when I make it through hard days. 

Your feelings aren’t always trustworthy. They’re kind of like that friend who you originally thought you could trust with your whole life and then you slowly realized that friend doesn’t guard your secrets, does a lot of gossiping, and often gives you bad advice. Those are your feelings— sometimes they’re on point but a lot of times they’re steering you to take frantic, half-thought-out detours. Don’t let the feelings of sadness or loneliness steal the valuable parts of this season. It goes fast. It matters that you show up.

Create some phone boundaries.

Guys, this is a huge one. It’s been a consistent practice of mine throughout this past year. The cellphones— the constant connectedness— is messing with us. It’s breaking our brains. It’s causing us to slump and feel more depressed than ever.

I’m not telling you to throw your phone in the river or anything. But I am telling you this: creating boundaries with your connectedness is wise and will restore your health. Limit the time spent scrolling. Make a vow to yourself that when you get on social media then you’ll be there to engage. Be vocal. Comment on things rather than being the creepy person who checks out statuses but never interacts. 

This week, I listened to a really great podcast on putting down the devices and I was inspired to take email off my phone. I’ve noticed for a while that I don’t actually respond to emails on my phone (very rarely). If anything, I pop into my inbox when I am bored. The last few days have been hard for me as my thumb tries to hover over where my email used to be but it’s all a matter of retraining my brain for the better.

No one will set screen boundaries for you. You’ve got to step up and make those micro changes for yourself. 

Some examples of small boundaries to begin with:

  • No phone after 9pm

  • Use an alarm clock and charge your phone in another room

  • NO SCROLLING before 10am

  • No email on your phone

  • Do Not Disturb mode during the most important tasks of your day

You’re not broken.

This isn’t practical so much as it is pure truth: you’re not broken for dealing with depression during the holidays. It’s normal. It does not mean your defective or that God is looking down at you and thinking, “Gosh, pull yourself together. What is wrong with you, child?!” 

For a long time, I was led astray by people who told me I just needed more faith if I wanted to beat my depression. I remember thinking to myself, “Joy is a fruit of the spirit. And we get those fruits of the spirit by spending time with God. So I’m just going to spend as much time as possible with God and joy is going to show up.” 

I tried, people. I tried. I spent hours reading my bible— searching for Joy like she was going to pop up in the pages and take up residence in my heart. And when it didn’t happen, I felt I was a failure. That I wasn’t someone who knew much about faith if I couldn’t even master a simple thing like joy. 

It’s perfectly okay if you struggle for joy. It doesn’t make you wrong or bad. Give yourself some grace and remember: we are all made differently. Your lack of joy has nothing to do with your devotion to God. 

To the one who feels dried up and lacking joy: you’re not broken. You’re not far off. Pick up your backpack and pack up your tent, we aren’t going to stay camping out in these feelings forever. Let’s keep moving, little traveler. And let’s count the things that give us glimmers of hope and light as we go. They might be small. And they might not feel how we expected them to feel. But they’re there. 

Hope is around us this holiday season. 

We might not be able to see her or touch her but I swear she’s here. 

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