The holiday season -- good will, elation, anticipation. The holiday season -- peace, love, understanding. Thanksgiving, for most Americans, marks the beginning of "the most wonderful time of the year." Religion, family and tradition are elements of the holidays that make each observance of these special occasions a celebration to be cherished and fondly remembered. Love and joy abound.
Yet, for many, the holidays may be more aptly expressed in the lyrics of "Blue Christmas." Many factors can cause the “holiday blues”: stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations, over-commercialization, financial constraints, and the inability to be with one’s family and friends. In addition, the demands of shopping, parties, family reunions and house guests also contribute to feelings of tension. In some cases, the holidays are doomed to disappointment even under the best conditions.
The result? People develop other stress responses such as headaches, excessive drinking, over-eating and difficulty sleeping. Even more people experience post-holiday let down after January 1. This can result from disappointments during the preceding months compounded by the excess fatigue and stress. ("What Causes Holiday Blues?" Mental Health America, 2009)
In fact, Rebel Taylor (www.cbn.com, 2009) reported that a survey by the National Women’s Health Resource Center states that two-thirds of women report depression during the holidays. Dr. Kenneth Johnson, a psychiatrist at Columbia St. Mary’s, stated in a 2003 article, “Depression is higher in the winter months in general, but the biggest cause of holiday depression is unmet expectations."
Many holiday participants seem to struggle with this issue. They make Thanksgiving or Christmas “the event” and pressure themselves to make “the event” a super-spiritual, picture-perfect memory instead of a day set apart to enjoy family and simply turn our attention to the Creator of the holiday. Unrealistic expectations cause pain.
Families often stress over the perfect gift, the perfect dinner, rushing from Christmas programs to parties, from house to house, squeezing in a candlelight service before rushing home to get the last minute gifts wrapped. Of course, none of these activities are wrong; however, too many stressful events contribute to a time filled with more mayhem than simplicity. Many people actually find themselves self-destroying the very meaning of the season they had hoped to celebrate.
The Mayo Clinic Staff (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 1998-2009) found that depression during the holidays can take on many forms and have many causes, and according to a study reported in 2007 by the Mayo Clinic, there are a few recognizable triggers. The study did find that depression brought on or intensified by the holidays often is started by these three factors:
1. Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time, but tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflicts can intensify — especially if people are thrust together for several days. Most people have a tendency to expect relationships to be perfect during the holidays, yet, unfortunately, this is often not the case. Masks of kindness disintegrate and relationships blow up.
2. Finances. With the added expenses of gifts, travel, food and entertainment, the holidays can put a strain on a budget — and family peace of mind, not to mention that overspending now can mean financial worries for months to come. The pressure to buy gifts, support charitable opportunities at every store, engage in holiday travel, and consume extra food can cause anyone to feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and sad. The end result may be financial disaster.
3. Physical demands. Even die-hard holiday enthusiasts may find that the extra shopping and socializing can leave them wiped out. Being exhausted increases stress, creating a vicious cycle. During the holidays, exercise and sleep may take a back seat to shopping, decorating and errands. Do people cram the holidays with emphasis on quantity over quality?
Here are some suggestions for coping with the holiday blues:
1. Be prepared to experience a full range of emotion, from happiness to sadness, joy to anger, but remember that these feelings will be more intense than usual because of the season.
2. Use common sense in how you express your feelings, but give yourself permission to feel. For example, let yourself be righteously indignant about our society's response to the needy, if that is how you feel. Let yourself be close, sharing, and joyful, if that is how you feel.
3. Expect sadness and grief in some circumstances as normal and not to be feared. Those who have lost a loved one during the course of the year can expect to have a rough time because the holidays bring back memories of better days.
4. If you've gone through the loss of a loved one or suffered some similar blow to your psychological balance this year, you may get some comfort from reflecting that such pain does diminish, with time. Otherwise, try to open yourself up to those around you who may want to try to ease your pain but don't know how. Or seek out someone in a similar situation who may appreciate your company. Just spend time with others--go bowling, make cookies, go for a walk, but do it in the company of those who may care about you.
5. Show elders special attention during the holidays. Remember that the elderly may be isolated and feel forgotten by their families; a card and a phone call only go so far. Resulting renewed fellowships are invaluable.
6. Befriend others less fortunate than you. This activity may be spiritually rewarding for all parties. Remember that people whose economic condition has worsened may feel ashamed or inadequate that they can't provide for their families as they did in the past.