The Christmas season is supposed to be a time of joy, family, fellowship and kindness. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, we center our minds and spirits around the holiday season and its celebrations. Life seems to speed up. The family and friends we rarely see the rest of the year reach out to each other. Many of us focus on giving to others who are less fortunate than we. Others spend their time searching for the perfect gift for those they love. But the season is not always a happy time for everyone. It can be a busy, busy time.
For most of us, the holiday season is a time of wondrous nostalgia. Our childhood memories of the holiday season are preserved in our minds like little snow globes, perfect and magical – and each is probably a totally unrealistic picture of what was going on around us at the time. Just as we try to do with our own children, our parents usually tried to protect us from the harder side of life, so it’s possible we may not even recall many of the bad things that happened during the holidays back then.
Unfortunately, the vagaries of everyday life continue during this season just as they did the rest of the year, bringing pain and uncertainty into our lives despite our best efforts to hang onto the joy. Somehow, we expect this period of the year to be free from the pain of loss, loneliness and insecurity we experience the rest of the year. Often, we try to protect ourselves by focusing on the holiday traditions in our past to inure us against the evils of the world.
Traditions are, in many ways, a myth. They are a by-product of being human in a fast-moving, fast-changing world. Traditions are a method people use to hold on to something we perceive as a constant throughout our unpredictable lives. In a world where life changes from day to day, even minute to minute, we seek any anchor point to which we can cling, even if only for the space of one month out of the year.
And most traditions we currently think of as having always been a part of this season’s festivities really weren’t even a part of life beyond than a century ago. Many of the ways we currently celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas were invented by modern day advertisers who were trying to make a market for a product they were trying to sell!
The problem with traditions is that nothing in the world ever remains the same. Bad things continue to happen to us every day, no matter the season. In fact, it often seems as if they increase around this time of year.
- More people are on the roads, driving to and from parties, shopping trips, and visits to distant family.
- Car accidents caused by drunk or stressed-out drivers unexpectedly rob us of family members or send us to the hospital.
- The stress of trying to get everything done causes many of us to lose our tempers, creating rifts between us and those we love.
- Dysfunctional family issues can add unrealistic expectations to our already jammed schedules.
- People are robbed of the presents they’ve accumulated for their celebrations.
- Others lose their jobs at a time when they desperately need extra money.
- Many find themselves alone or homeless, struggling to live on the streets.
- And unfortunately, people we love dearly continue to die from disease and old age, just as they did the rest of the year.
These kinds of negative experiences can leave huge holes of grief, sucking the joy out of a time that we feel should only be, well, joyous. And somehow they seem much more difficult to handle at this time than at other times of the year. For example, losing a loved one at this time of year can ruin the holiday season for years to come because the loss becomes forever entwined with our expectations of the perfect holiday experience. Is it any wonder, then, that this time of year sees such a huge rise in depression?
It is even more important for us to take the time to care for ourselves at this time of year than it is at any other time. Thankfully, there are a few ways to help lessen the impact of these kind of negative holiday experiences.
It’s important to make special memories with people you love, but whenever possible, try to limit the amount of time you have to spend with toxic people. Try to avoid uncomfortable situations and negative emotional triggers wherever you can. If possible, work with other family members to plan ways to enjoy the holidays that don’t add stress and anxiety into the mix.
Be realistic about your time.
Many of us have difficulty saying no to others at this time of year. Parties, charitable events, and work, school and church activities can overwhelm our already busy schedules, creating unnecessary stress, and setting us up for failure and exhaustion. Remember, you cannot be all things to all people.
Change your traditions.
If the usual celebrations don’t work for you, change them. Create new ones that break up the typical monotony. Believe it or not, the world will not come to an end if you decide not to participate in a particular family tradition. People have been changing traditions for millennia. The fact is, what worked for our parents and grandparents may not work for us. Don’t feel you have to continue a tradition just because that is how it has always been done.
One year my own family had a really tight monetary situation at a time when we had extra family staying with us for an extended period. One of the things I recall doing as a child at Christmas was going door to door singing Christmas carols and I suggested this as a way to keep our spirits up. Unfortunately, most of our family felt they did not have great voices for singing in front of people. My husband came up with a fun alternative that everyone enjoyed. On Christmas Eve, he handed out kazoos and we all went outside and treated our neighbors with buzzing renditions of our favorite carols. It was a great memory for our kids and our neighbors loved it.
Avoid isolating yourself.
It is easy for someone who is overwhelmed and depressed by life’s trials to avoid being around other people. Many times, we justify our own need to be alone by convincing ourselves that we will just bring others down.
If you are struggling to process negative events and feelings, just having a person to talk to can help ease the negative thoughts dragging you down. Others can sometimes listen to our problems and help us find solutions we might not think of ourselves.
They can also help you recognize ways to set boundaries and protect yourself from being caught up in situations that can intensify feelings of anger, fear and depression.
Avoid the alcohol.
Alcoholic drinks are pretty much synonymous with the word “celebration” these days. With the number of parties we are expected to attend at this time of year, it is easy to over-indulge. In fact, it is one of the most popular gifts given during this season.
Yet alcohol is actually a depressant on the nervous system. It causes sleepiness, reduces coordination and responses to emergency situations, impairs concentration, creates short-term memory loss and mood shifts. Alcohol has been proven to increase depression and suicidal thoughts, yet it is one of the first things we reach for when dealing with emotional trauma and stress.
Instead of that glass of wine or beer, choose a healthier “mocktail,” or your favorite non-alcoholic beverage.
Turn off the TV.
The Christmas season provides a plethora of TV shows and movies that show happy family gatherings and fairytale endings. Even commercials are overflowing with images of happy couples and traditional families. The constant onslaught of holiday “cheer” can seriously increase feelings of isolation and unhappiness when our own lives don’t measure up with the ideal “as seen on TV.”
Instead, take a walk outdoors, if the weather allows it, or head to the gym for a work out. Communing with nature and physical activity have both been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression.
Stay off social media for a few days.
Our social media feeds are generally full of our friends’ happiest holiday moments at this time of year. It is rare that people post about the arguments that flared up at their family get-together or admit that their spouse walked out on them over the holidays.
Our feeds create the illusion that everyone else is happy and their lives are perfect. This can be devastating in comparison to our own imperfect one. Recent studies have indicated that social media are actually bad for your mental health.
If you can’t quit your feeds altogether, at least try to cut back on them. Limit your screen time.
Find your own ray of sunshine.
Depression increases significantly at the end of daylight savings time. Fewer hours of daylight and being stuck inside because of winter weather can have a real negative effect on your psyche. In fact, there is a type of depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), that emerges at this time of year. It is caused by reduced exposure to sunlight and it can actually change your brain chemistry, causing profound sadness.
Invest in a light therapy lamp or full-spectrum light bulbs to ward off the effects of short days and long dark nights.
If you find it difficult to sleep at night, trying a weighted blanket may help. They are a popular aid for relieving anxiety.
If you find yourself agitated by the noise and bustle of the season, try using noise-canceling headphones to tune out excess background noise while working or shopping.
Reach out for help.
Everyone can benefit from seeing a therapist no matter what time of year it is, but during the holiday season it is especially helpful. A therapist can help you find ways to cope with the emotional problems that seem to be rampant at this time of year. Many therapists offer phone or Facetime/Skype sessions as part of their practice.
If you don’t have a therapist but are finding it hard to deal with the emotional upheaval of the season, try reaching out to a crisis hotline by phone or text.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
If you are afraid or embarrassed to talk to a stranger on the phone, the Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HOME to 741741. They have volunteers you can chat with via text 24/7.
Every city and county in the U.S. has local suicide or crisis hotlines available to anyone in need. To find one, you can do a quick google search on “crisis hotlines.” Or if you’re more comfortable doing things old-school, just look them up in the phone book.
If you’re a veteran, identify LGBTQ, dealing with grief or a life-threatening illness, or any other type of problem, check out the crisis service categories on www.allaboutcounseling.com for any specific types of help you might need.
In addition, there are a number of apps available for when you need help at times that are inconvenient for making an appointment with your local counselor.
If you aren’t currently in crisis and are looking for a way to handle stress on your own, there are also a number of apps that can help you through directed mindfulness meditation all year long.
Give to others.
Interestingly, one of the best ways to help pull yourself out of depression is through the simple act of giving to others. This form of giving does not always have a hefty price tag. Rather, it only requires a bit of time donated in service to others.
Helping out at your local food bank or through your church group, collecting and distributing food and daily living items to the homeless or seniors in your community, or to the survivors of recent natural disasters, can work wonders for your own mood and your sense of self-worth.
If you know of someone who is alone over the holidays, invite them to join your own celebrations. Or if they are homebound, bring them a small holiday meal or a package of homemade cookies and other Christmas goodies, or just spend a little time with them.
Knowing that even a small bit of effort on your part can help someone else who is in need helps get your mind off your own troubles and gives you the opportunity for contact with other human beings.
For many people, the holiday season is filled with loneliness and despair. Helping others in this way provides them with a little bit of hope and human kindness.
How can you possibly feel any better about yourself than by knowing something you did for someone really mattered to them?
This is, after all, the reason for the season, isn’t it?