We are told that Christmas, for Christians, should be the happiest time of year, an opportunity to be joyful and grateful with family, friends and colleagues. Yet, many people are unhappy at Christmas and according to the National Institute of Health, they can experience mental health problems. One North American survey reported that 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season.
Psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals report a significant increase in patients complaining about depression. And there is conflicting evidence regarding an increase in suicides.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US suicides (at more than 40,000 per year, the 10th–leading cause of death) are at a nadir in December, and peak in the spring and fall. Nevertheless, some research has found evidence to bolster the Christmas-suicide idea. A 2014 study in Queensland, Australia, looking at the years 1990 to 2009, found a statistically significant increase in suicides on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
Forty-five percent of Americans would prefer to skip Christmas, according to a survey from Think Finance and reported on www.nbcnews.com. That should tell you something about our coping mechanisms when it comes to handling holiday stress. Nearly a quarter of Americans reported feeling “extreme stress” come holiday time, according to a poll by the American Psychological Association. Holiday stress statistics show that up to 69 percent of people are stressed by the feeling of having a “lack of time,” 69 percent are stressed by perceiving a “lack of money,” and 51 percent are stressed out about the “pressure to give or get gifts.”
At least one study suggests that stress during the Christmas season can literally give you a heart attack. Obviously, many people have good reason to not like Christmas, be it estrangement or loss of their own family or friends, trauma experienced during the festive period (with all the context cues constantly bringing the unpleasant memories flooding back) and so on.
Why Does The Christmas Season Cause Such Distress?
Is the Grinch in full force during the season? Is it because of the dark winter weather that increases the incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
While images of love and joy fill storefronts, TV screens and magazine pages, for many people, the reality of the holidays isn’t so cheerful. Between stressful end-of-year deadlines, family dysfunction and loss, poor eating and drinking habits, and increasingly cold and dark winter days, it’s easy for the holiday season to feel not so merry and bright.
Constant reminders of others’ happy seasons can additionally serve as a painful reminder of the happiness and love that’s lacking in our own lives. For this reason, the month of December can be a particularly difficult time of year for those dealing with family conflict, loss, break ups, divorce, loneliness and mental health issues.
During holiday time, stress is ratcheted up by a number of factors: lack of money, shopping decisions and deadlines, parties, strained family relations, pressures to please family and friends and have “the perfect” holiday, and the media bombardment of happy, smiling families and friends enjoying holiday festivities. There’s also the increased vulnerability to succumb to recent personal losses—the death of a spouse, child, relative or close friend; a divorce; or the breakup of a relationship. Patients treated by emergency psychiatric services during the holiday season reported that their most common stressors were feelings of loneliness and “being without family,” according to a 1991 Canadian study.
People who suffer from anxiety and depression, for example, can have their already fragile emotions strained to the breaking point from all the stress of meeting holidays obligations. And if there has been a sorrowful event during the year, the end of the year can revive the trauma. “If there has been a loss in the family, whether it’s a death or the first year going through a divorce, the holidays are always extra hurtful and sad. People don’t know how to get through it, how much they should do [to celebrate]. It’s difficult,” says Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in private practice in State College, Penn.
The traditional image of Christmas is, let’s be honest, incredibly optimistic. Nearly every portrayal shows a cosy cheerful, tastefully decorated home, surrounded by pristine snow, in which a happy family gathers to share a large dinner cooked to picture-postcard perfection.
Life is just too complex and messy to ever guarantee the mainstream portrayal of a perfect Christmas. And yet, we still expect it. The human tendency to expect the best is the result of a well-known optimism bias, something seemingly inherent in our brains. This, coupled with the planning fallacy (a related phenomenon where we repeatedly underestimate how much time and effort tasks will take despite previous experiences) would lead to many people expecting a fun, pleasant, relaxing Christmas and ending up with a messy, chaotic, stressful one.
Origins of the “Christmas Problem”
It was James P. Cattell in 1955, a Harvard and Columbia trained psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, coined the term “the holiday syndrome,” describing it as a reaction in some patients that manifests itself beginning around Thanksgiving and ending a few days after January 1st. It is characterized, he insisted, “. . . by the presence of diffuse anxiety, numerous regressive phenomena including marked feelings of helplessness, possessiveness, and increased irritability, nostalgic or bitter rumination about holiday experiences of youth, depressive affect, and a wish for magical resolution of problems.”
Writer Olga Khazan speculates the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life—with its famous scene in which Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey contemplates suicide—and the way in “which basic-cable networks put [it] on heavy rotation as Christmas nears” prompted many people to associate Christmas with suicide.
Certainly those may be some reasons, but it appears to have more to do with unrealistic expectations and excessive self-reflection for many people. And as happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky argues, the holiday season is a time rife with “Pollyannaish” expectations.
For some people, they get depressed at Christmas and even angry because of the excessive commercialization of Christmas, with the focus on gifts and the emphasis on “perfect” social activities. Other get depressed because Christmas appears to be a trigger to engage in excessive self-reflection and rumination about the inadequacies of life (and a “victim” mentality) in comparison with other people who seem to have more and do more.
Still others become anxious at Christmas because of the pressure (both commercial and self-induced) to spend a lot of money on gifts and incur increasing debt. Other people report that they dread Christmas because of the expectations for social gatherings with family, friends and acquaintances that they’d rather not spend time with. And finally, many people feel very lonely at Christmas, because they have suffered the loss of loved ones or their jobs.
Here are some of the other risk factors that can contribute to unhappiness or depression:
- Setting up unrealistic expectations. Hoping for a picture-perfect White Christmas holiday is setting yourself up for not only disappointment, but potentially symptoms of depression. “People have this anticipation or fantasy of the holiday that you would see on TV,” psychiatrist Mark Sichel, author of Healing from Family Rifts, adding that his practice gets much busier after the holidays. “Actually, it’s never exactly as people anticipate and it’s often disappointing. There’s often strife within families that comes out at holiday times. “Especially when it comes to family especially, it’s important to manage expectations during the holidays and not hope for things to be perfect. If holidays tend to be a time of conflict in your family, or you’ve recently experienced the loss of a loved one, putting pressure on your family to all get along or to be cheerful could lead to disappointment and additional anxiety.
- Focusing too much on what you don’t have. Being mindful of what you dohave to be thankful for ― your sister who always makes family gatherings bearable, getting a week off of work, or just the promise of a fresh start with the beginning of the new year ― can help combat feelings of deficiency and lack. “Realize that the holidays do end ― and take stock of what you can be grateful for,” says Sichel. “Having gratitude is probably the best antidote against depression.”
- Trying to do too much. At the holidays, the pressure of trying to do everything ― plan the perfect holiday, make it home to see your family, say yes to every event, meet those year-end deadlines ― can be enough to send anyone into a tail spin. And if you’re prone to anxiety and depression, stress (and a lack of sleep) can take a significant toll on your mood. A heightened pressure and fear of not getting everything done are some of the most common triggers for the holiday blues, according to Sichel. “Being bogged down by perfectionism” can contribute to feeling down, says Sichel. “Many people feel they just can’t do the right thing, that family members are always disappointed in them.”
- Comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides. Both in real life and on social media, it can be difficult to avoid comparing yourself with others around Christmastime. If you have a less-than-perfect family, a past trauma from this time of year, or just a less-than-full holiday dance card, comparing your holiday experience with other peoples’ is a recipe for increased sadness and isolation.
What to Do If You Find the Christmas Season Difficult
First, if you’re among those who become very unhappy overly stressed or depressed you should seek the help of mental health professionals.
For others who find it difficult but may not need professional help, consider these strategies:
- Set personal boundaries regarding the money spent on gifts and the number of social events.
- Don’t accept any “perfect” representation of Christmas that the media, institutions or other people try to make you believe.
- Lower your expectations and any attachment to what it should look like.
- Be present and enjoy each moment as best you can.
- Become involved in giving in a non-monetary way through charities and worthwhile causes that help less fortunate people.
- Be grateful for what you have in your life, rather than focusing on what you don’t have.
- Avoid excessive rumination about your life, particularly the things you think are missing;
- If you are religious, take part in church activities that focus on the bigger meaning of Christmas.
- Focus your thoughts on all the good things about the holiday season–the opportunity to engage in loving kindness, generosity of spirit, and gratitude for others in your life.
- Focus on the things you can change in your life and take action on those, rather than ruminating over the things over which you have no control.
- Be kind to yourself and self-compassionate. Do something for yourself as kind and considerate and generous as you would do for others.
- Handle potential stressors early-on. Holiday planning is hectic, so get stuff done early, and refrain from going over the top. Be realistic about which tasks and obligations are possible and which are not. “It’s important to stay within your budget [over the holidays] and plan your gifts in advance.
- Get enough sleep and exercise. Both can cut down on stress, and will help you feel healthy and have less guilt about all the parties and dinners.
- Keep your routine. Don’t stop doing what makes you feel good, even if you’re busier. Some people say that their daily exercise is the first thing to go—don’t let it.
The Christmas season has become a difficult time for many people in our society. For those of us who don’t have difficulties at this time of year, it’s an opportunity to reach out to those who become depressed. For those who are depressed, it’s an opportunity to take action to think, feel and act in ways that breaks free from the past the best that you can, regardless of circumstances.