Traveling With Holiday Depression

Experts share tips for dealing with holiday blues away from home.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 23, 2009
8 min read

Are you traveling for the holidays? Ready for all the family gatherings, old friends, Mom's cake, the white and drifting snow? It may depend on what happens to your mood when holidays approach. In fact, if you get depressed around the holidays, travel can seem more like a nightmare than a vacation. Here is what experts have to say about traveling with holiday depression.

Travel, according to Philip Muskin, MD, can affect people in different ways. Muskin is a professor of clinical psychiatry and chief of consultation-liaison psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. He tells WebMD, "On one hand, being in a fresh setting may be very beneficial. You're in a new location, on vacation, and you don't need to get up at 6 in the morning for the daily commute. In this fresh environment, stressors are reduced, and you feel a heck of a lot better without the pressures that the holiday blues have been magnifying."

On the other hand, Muskin says, travel is far more stressful than it used to be. "We like to think of it as over the river and through the woods," he says. "But it's not. It's more like eight hours in traffic on the Jersey turnpike or long, seemingly endless lines in the airport." He points out that there are fewer, more crowded flights and far more airport congestion now than in the past.

"Travel can be very stressful," he says, "and if you're depressed, your frustration tolerance doesn't have that roll-with-the-punches resiliency." As a result, when something happens like your flight getting delayed, you are less likely to tell yourself, "It's no big deal."

"Travel is a process," Muskin says, "and it can have a major negative impact, even on people who aren't depressed."

"Preparation is essential any time you travel," says Helen Grusd, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif. and past president of the LA County Psychological Association. "Preparation is your best inoculation against stress."

The preparation Grusd is talking about isn't deciding what clothes you are going to take. "You need to prepare yourself emotionally. How are you going to empower yourself?"

The first step, Grusd tells WebMD, is to determine what the purpose of your trip is. "Are you going to make connections with family members? Or is the purpose just to go and relax and enjoy yourself?" Then the next step is to tell yourself "over and over again, 'I am going to make this work.'"

Grusd urges patients with holiday depression to make that phrase a mantra. "There are going to be circumstances out of your control," she says. "But you prepare yourself to say, 'Whatever I can control, I'm going to control.'" If you are depressed or have the blues, Grusd tells WebMD, you tend to feel like you have no power over things when you become frustrated. She says, though, that you can choose to evaluate the situation as a challenge. Then you can let yourself enjoy the challenge rather than feeling like a victim.

How does that actually work when you travel? "In a long line at the airport," Grusd says, "you can talk to the person behind you or in front of you and get to know someone. You can tell yourself you don't need to be in a rush. The purpose of a vacation is to slow down and enjoy. If there's a delay at the airport, you can look at it as time to read a book. That way you stay in control instead of feeling the vacation's controlling you."

Muskin recommends setting goals for your vacation. "Start by thinking about the pleasures you are going to have on the trip. And then set goals for yourself and your family. Ask yourself and your partner," he says, "what it is you want to bring away from this trip."

Make sure the goals you set are attainable. For example, Muskin says, if you're going fishing, is your goal to catch the largest blue marlin in the Gulf, or is it to sit back, relax, and enjoy the outing with your partner or your kids? "If you have something you want to bring back from the vacation," he says, "especially if that's shared by other members of your family, you can stay focused on that and not get caught up in other things that really don't matter."

People with holiday depression can calm inner turmoil and anxiety by thinking ahead and planning, says Elaine Rodino, PhD, a psychologist in State College, Pennsylvania, and a fellow of the American Psychological Association. If you are traveling, she says, plan to do it as easily as you can. Pick travel days when there are fewer people traveling. Choose flight times so you can be at the airport when it is less crowded. Check weather alerts ahead of time, and check with the airlines to find out what their refund policies are in case of travel alerts. "That way you can avoid being stuck at the airport for 18 hours, which can make someone who is already depressed feel as if they are going over the edge," says Rodino.

Rodino also says it's important to get extra sleep and good nutrition before the trip and to plan to take food with you.

And think ahead, Rodino says, about where you're going and what's going to happen when you get there. "Are you going to see family and other people that you don't feel comfortable about being with? Think ahead and plan to spend more time with people you do feel comfortable being around."

An important part of setting goals and making plans, Muskin emphasizes, is anticipating the fun of the trip. "But sometimes people are in such a deep funk they can't imagine any fun. When that happens, it's worth talking to your partner about," he says. "Or talking with a close friend or a pastoral counselor or maybe even seeing a mental health professional."

Not being able to imagine enjoying anything is a sign your depression may be more serious than holiday blues. Seek help and treatment. "Clinical depression is an illness, and it's treatable," says Muskin. "But for some reason, people don't want to admit they need help. That's dangerous." To get around the idea that asking for help is a sign of weakness or causes embarrassment, Muskin says think about how even the greatest athletes need coaches. "Tiger Woods has a coach," he says. "The greatest of the great aren't embarrassed to say they need help. It's the normal people who won't ask for help. And that's all a pastoral counselor or a mental health professional is. Someone who helps."

Being clinically depressed doesn't mean you can't go on your trip. But it's important that you keep doing what helps you feel better. Grusd suggests carrying a small card on which you've written down your strengths and what your coping techniques are -- whether that's taking a walk, listening to music, drinking a glass of water, or calling a friend. Then look at the card often to remind yourself that you can deal with your depression. Maintaining the same routine you follow at home, including taking any medications you normally take.

A lot of things can cause a blue mood to get worse once you arrive at your destination. Here are some tips for helping to keep the blues at bay:

Give yourself permission to say no. Grusd agrees and says, "The problem is we agree to everything, because we want to please. But that can mean disaster." She recommends regularly self-monitoring your mood by using the word HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. "A lot of us don't realize we are overtired or over hungry and so we agree to everything," Grusd says. "Once you're aware, you can say, 'I'm a little tired right now,' or, 'I'm exhausted. I'm going to go lie down.' Or, 'I'm going to skip this activity.'" That way, you can choose the things you want to do and pass on the things you don't.

Practice behavioral activation. Getting up and going for a walk is one way to activate yourself. So is listening to music or looking at pictures of things you are going to see and do. Sharing jokes from a book you brought along so everyone laughs can lift your mood.

Focus on the now. Holidays are traditionally times for families to come together -- and when that happens, old rivalries and hurts can flare up. Your mother may have been a horrible parent, but now isn't the time to tell her. "You can say to yourself, 'The mother I had 40 years ago isn't the same woman who is here today,'" Muskin says. "So focus on the woman who is here. Or maybe your brother is richer than God and doesn't mind letting everyone know. But the fact is he is isn't taking anything away from you. It's an opportunity to live in the here and now."

Practice self-restraint. During the holidays, you're surrounded by food -- and not just any food, says Muskin. "And it's great food. It's Mom's cake," he says. "One way to deal with that is to tell yourself you are going to have some of Mom's cake. But then tell yourself you're not going to have it at every meal." If you don't normally eat dessert at lunch, don't let yourself eat it at lunch while you're away. That way, he says, you get to enjoy Mom's cake, but you also get to feel good about your sense of control.

Alcohol is another problem during the holidays, especially when there are a lot of parties. Alcohol not only interferes with sleep, it can play havoc with your mood. It's important to keep track of how much you drink, says Grusd, and to not drink in excess. The holidays are also a particularly bad time for people who are recovering from an alcohol addiction.

"I tell anyone who is just recently sober," Rodino says, "to skip the parties."

Treat yourself nicely -- exercise. "Vacation is a time to be nice to yourself," Muskin says, "an opportunity to take care of yourself a little better. For some, that means they're going to eat steak or have an extra beer. That's good, and they should do it. But taking care of yourself a little better also means getting up in the morning and going for a run."

When you treat yourself well physically, Rodino points out, you also are taking care of some important emotional needs. "Some people really need their daily walk," she says. "It's literally an antidepressant."