Depression can feel overwhelming during the holidays. There’s a few reasons for that. Our traditions and gatherings can usually remind us not only of the ways we are connected and grateful, but also the ways we can sometimes feel alone and isolated as well.

This holiday brings with it an uninvited guest: a recognition that for many of us, this year has been difficult, and at times has felt hopeless. On top of these kinds of economic and health realities, we can recognize that we’ve been lonely.

Our brains were meant for daily social connection

The largest part of our brains is the cortex. That’s the rich, folded external part of our brains responsible for all of our higher order planning, thinking, language, and visual-spacial awareness. The purpose of this part of the brain isn’t simply for accomplishing tasks.

The purpose of this important part of our brain is to keep us connected to a social group.

Our cortex is built for constant and intricate interactions with other people. Picture a 150 person closed-network group of people – similar to tribal cultures. Each person knows each other, each person has a role, a sense of how they belong and function together. Together they have some sense of their shared world and place in it. They have stories and myths, they have unfolding drama and conflict between members, and ways of moving through these conflicts toward resolutions.

Pre-COVID, our social environments tend to be more urban than tribal. The social connections that fed our cortexes came instead from affinity groups, churches, work environments, and gyms. These give our lives meaning, they give us purpose, and identity. When we feel we belong to a community, we know our role, we get clear signals about our identity within that group, and we feel we’re moving toward some shared purpose that’s larger than ourselves.

This season, our brains are starved for social connection, and it’s making us depressed.

While this seems an obvious connection, I believe we can also tend to dismiss the weight these social interactions hold for us.

When we don’t acknowledge the importance of our social groups, we tend to shame ourselves and others for missing friends. We can interpret these kinds of feelings or needs as a disregard for public health. However, it’s normal to be sad and crave things like dinner parties and baseball games, just like it’s normal to be thirsty or hungry.

Our hunger for social interactions is a survival instinct. It’s telling us that we’re vulnerable, that we’re alone in a threatening world.

Loneliness and Hopelessness Contribute to Depression

Depression is a clinical term that describes a certain prolonged experience of low energy, sadness, lack of pleasure and hope for the future. For some of us who have a tendency toward depression, there are some environmental pieces that will trigger a depressive episode.

The two factors that may especially contribute to triggering a depressive episode this season are isolation and hopelessness. We’ve already talked a bit about isolation, how our sense of belonging to a group of people can insulate us from depression and meaninglessness.

Hopelessness is the experience of not being able to imagine the end of suffering. Human beings can be incredibly resilient when we can envision an end to our suffering. When we can see a light at the end of the tunnel we can endure incredible challenges, just like a marathon runner can push toward the finish line because she can imagine a defined point at which the pain in her legs will stop.

Because we don’t know when the pandemic will end, we can feel hopeless. When we don’t know how long to social distance for, or when we’ll be able to see family again, we can tend to be overwhelmed by depressive feelings.

Two Ways to Increase your Emotional Resilience

So what do we do? While no solution will bring back the social connections we’re craving, our best tool is to hold onto a few things that help us endure the pain of being apart.

First of all, it’s important to not throw out our normal traditions. Talk with friends and family and be creative with a socially-distanced version of your normal traditions. While there may be an element of sadness to not being together, practicing the tradition will help us to remember important moments of connection with those closest to us.

Second, talk with family and friends to plan a time in the future to celebrate once it’s safe. Just like a marathon runner needs a clear, defined end to their pain to keep going, we need to clearly imagine a point at which we can come back together and celebrate. Plan a trip or visit to reconnect with others in the future – talk about what kind of meal or activity you’ll do. The more clearly you can imagine and plan for this moment, the more it will increase your emotional resilience in this time.

What could this look like for your immediate family? For your friend group? For your work life?

In the meantime, if you’re struggling today with depressive feelings that are overwhelming, give us a call. Therapy can help you move through these feelings and recover a sense of hope and meaning.

Connor McClenahan, PsyD
Connor McClenahan, PsyD

I help lawyers and other professionals overcome difficult emotions and experience meaning and purpose in their lives.