The Christmas season can be a time of great joy and happiness. It can also be a time of sadness, depression, stress and loneliness for many people.
The expression “there’s no place like home for the holidays” promises experiences of warmth and joy that are a reality for some and an illusion for others. During the holidays, for many of us, the gap between what we have and what we want is great. Many individuals could be wishing for a Christmas that isn’t blue rather than dreaming of a White Christmas.
A survey by the American Psychological Association found that 38% of respondents stated that holidays make them more stressed out. Participants ranked their top stressors as being short on time or money, commercialism, the pressure of gift-giving, and family gatherings.
For many people, Christmas can be a very stressful time of year. It can give you a heart attack, according to at least one research study. Many people have genuine reasons to dislike Christmas, like trauma experienced over the holiday season (with all the context cues constantly bringing the terrible memories flooding back), estrangement from family or friends, loss of loved ones, and so forth. However, if you examine how Christmas is celebrated in modern society, you may be surprised to see that there are a surprising number of factors that can—and probably do—increase stress rather than contribute to happiness.
Christmas arrives with a unique mix of characteristics that, even if we are unaware of it, could easily combine to cause stress, anxiety and sadness.
For instance, Christmas falls during the winter in the northern hemisphere, when the days are shorter and the climate is typically unfavourable. There is a lot of evidence to support the idea that less daylight has a detrimental impact on our mood, so that’s already a problem. But take into account the following: A study revealed that exposure to daylight, as well as ambient illumination and colour, were connected to mood and well-being at work. It seems that environments that are normally dark but frequently punctuated with bright lights and garish colours would be the poorest choice for taxing our brains. Being too dark or bright generated unpleasant feelings. Now think of the standard Christmas decorations.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Household Pulse Survey, adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are most likely to report having anxiety or depressive symptoms. The most recent dates included in the study, from September 30 to October 12, revealed that 44.7% of respondents experienced anxiety or sadness.
The holidays can be tense, and we’re dealing with an ongoing pandemic on top of that. This might lead to even more stress, especially when we organize family gatherings.
The so-called “Christmas blues,” which are frequently related to financial stress, loneliness, colder weather, and other variables, may be more common in people with mental health conditions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people with a mental illness say the holidays worsen their problems.
“Our minds are not equipped for the ambiguity of the conditions we all find ourselves in,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Even for those who don’t often experience stress, it finally becomes a chronic stressor.
During the epidemic, older people, particularly those who reside in rural regions, may be dealing with chronic loneliness, which experts believe poses a significant risk for suicide.
The Pressure to be Happy at Christmas
According to the National Institutes of Health, a lot of people face mental health issues over the holiday season. According to one North American survey, 45% of participants detested the holiday season.
The number of people complaining about depression has significantly increased, according to psychiatric, psychological, and other mental health practitioners. A rise in suicides on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day was shown to be statistically significant in a 2014 study conducted in Queensland, Australia, and spanning the years 1990 to 2009.
According to a Think Finance survey that was published on www.nbcnews.com, 45% of Americans would prefer to forego Christmas. According to an American Psychological Association survey, about a quarter of Americans said they experience “severe stress” around the holidays. According to statistics on holiday stress, up to 69 percent of people experience stress due to a “lack of time,” 51 percent of people are anxious about the “pressure to buy or receive gifts,” and 69 percent are anxious about feeling like they have “not enough money.”
Why Is Christmas Such a Stressful Time of Year?
The reality of the holidays isn’t always as cheery for many individuals, despite the images of love and joy that adorn stores, TV screens, and magazine covers. It’s simple for the holiday season to feel less than joyous and bright due to demanding end-of-year deadlines, family discord and loss, bad eating and drinking habits, and getting colder and darker winter days.
Constant reminders of others’ joyous occasions can sometimes painfully act as a reminder of the lack of joy and love in our own lives. For those experiencing family strife, grief, breakups, divorce, loneliness, and mental health difficulties, December can be an especially trying time of year.
And how can we ignore the suffering of the impoverished and homeless, who struggle to exist while being denied even the most basic Christmas pleasures?
A lack of funds, shopping decisions and deadlines, parties, strained family relationships, pressure to please family and friends and have “the perfect” holiday, and the media deluge of smiling, happy families and friends celebrating the holidays all contribute to increased stress during the holiday season. The risk of succumbing to recent losses in one’s personal life, such as the death of a spouse, child, relative, or close friend, a divorce, or the dissolution of a partnership, has also increased. A 1991 Canadian study found that the most frequent stressors for patients seen by emergency psychiatric services over the holiday season were emotions of loneliness and “being without relatives.”
People with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, for instance, may find that the strain of fulfilling Christmas responsibilities causes their already fragile emotions to crack. Additionally, if a traumatic occurrence occurred during the year, it may resurface towards the end of the year. “The holidays are always more painful and depressing if there has been a loss in the family, whether it was a death or the first year going through a divorce. People are unsure of how to handle it or how much celebrating is appropriate.
The typical conception of Christmas is tremendously upbeat. In almost all depictions, a happy family gathers to enjoy a substantial dinner that has been prepared to picture-postcard perfection in a pleasant, cheery home that has been elegantly adorned and is surrounded by pure snow.
Simply put, the representation of a pristine Christmas in the media is impossible because life is too complicated and messy. Yet, we continue to anticipate it. The well-known optimism bias, which is said to be ingrained in human brains, is what leads to the inclination for people to hope for the best. This would result in many people anticipating a fun, pleasant, relaxing Christmas and ending up with a messy, chaotic, stressful one. This would be made worse by the planning fallacy (a related phenomenon where we repeatedly underestimate how much time and effort tasks will take despite previous experiences).
Origins of the “Christmas Problem”
The term “the holiday syndrome” was first used in 1955 by James P. Cattell, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had received training at Harvard and Columbia. He described it as a reaction in some patients that appears around Thanksgiving and lasts until a few days after New Year’s Day. He insisted that it is characterized by “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.”
According to author Olga Khazan, the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which is famous for the scene in which George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, considers suicide, and the fact that “basic-cable networks put [it] on heavy rotation as Christmas nears,” may be to blame for the association between Christmas and suicide.
Unrealistic expectations and excessive self-reflection appear to be the main causes for many people, and those are undoubtedly some of the possible causes. Additionally, the holiday season is a period that is rich with “Pollyannaish” aspirations, according to happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky.
Due to Christmas’ extreme commercialization, with its emphasis on gifts and “ideal” social events, some people experience depression and even rage throughout the holiday season. Others experience depression because it seems that Christmas catalyzes excessive self-reflection and rumination about life’s shortcomings (as well as a “victim” mindset) in comparison to others who appear to have more and accomplish more.
Others experience anxiety around Christmas as a result of the pressure (both external and internal) to overspend on gifts and accumulate debt. Others claim that they dread Christmas because of the expectations from the past for social gatherings with relatives, friends, and acquaintances that they’d prefer not to spend time with. Finally, a lot of people experience extreme loneliness at Christmas because they have lost loved ones or their jobs.
If you’re still fortunate enough to be a part of a family, Christmas is a time for families. Although family support and involvement can frequently be a crucial aspect of well-being, your family might temporarily be a source of stress. Political or cultural conflicts resulting from generational, regional, or even geographical differences are the most obvious illustration of this, and they frequently lead to tense situations or heated arguments over the dinner table, especially in these divisive times of Brexit and Trump.
The truth is that spending a long time in close quarters with a large portion of your family may still be stressful, even if there isn’t a clear source of contention or even confrontation. There’s also the stress-inducing relative lack of privacy that comes with having a crowded house. . Another significant stressor is the perception of losing control.
Regression also has an odd side to it. It appears that when you go back to your childhood home and stay with your parents and siblings, your brain “resets” and goes back to the schemas that controlled your behaviour and thoughts when you were in that situation before (which usually bedded in over many years). The problem is that you’re usually no longer a teenager. Your partner and kids are frequently present. You now have conflicting viewpoints in your thoughts as “responsible adult” thinking and “subservient toddler” behaviour patterns collide. As a result, there is doubt and misunderstanding, which adds to the tension.
Here are some more risk factors for sadness or unhappiness around Christmas:
- Having excessive expectations. Wishing for a White as perfect as possible. “People, have this anticipation or fantasy of the holiday that you would see on TV,” says psychiatrist Mark Sichel, author of Healing from Family Rifts, who also notes that the winter holidays are when his practice becomes very busy. “In reality, things never turn out exactly as people want, and they frequently disappoint. Family conflicts frequently manifest during the holidays. It’s crucial to control expectations during the holidays and not hold out hope for perfection, especially when it comes to family. Putting pressure on your family to get along or be joyful around the holidays, especially if your family has a history of conflict or you just lost a loved one, could cause disappointment and further stress.”
- Concentrating too much on what you lack. It might be helpful to fight feelings of deficiency and lack by being aware of what you DO have to be grateful for, such as your sister who always makes family gatherings pleasant, receiving a week off work, or simply the promise of a fresh start with the start of the new year. Consider your blessings and acknowledge that the holidays are coming to a close, advises Sichel. Having thankfulness is most likely the most effective treatment for depression.
- Trying to Do Too Much. The stress of trying to accomplish everything during the holidays, including planning the ideal vacation, travelling to see your family, accepting invitations to every event, and meeting year-end responsibilities, can be enough to put anyone into a tailspin. According to Sichel, some of the most typical causes of the holiday blues include increased pressure and the worry that one won’t finish everything. Feeling depressed can be exacerbated by “being bogged down by perfectionism,” according to Sichel.
- Comparing your interior to another person’s exterior. Around Christmas, it can be challenging to refrain from comparing oneself to others on social media and in real life. Comparing your holiday experience to others is a sure-fire way to feel more depressed and alone, especially if you have a less-than-ideal family, a past holiday tragedy, or simply a less-than-full dance card.
What to Do If the Holiday Season Seems Too Difficult
First, you should seek the assistance of mental health specialists or social and volunteer organizations that can aid you if you are one of those who frequently experience extreme unhappiness, excessive stress, or depression.
Others who struggle but may not require aid from a professional might think about the following tactics:
- Establish personal limits on how much you will spend on gifts.
- Refuse to believe in any “ideal” interpretation of Christmas that the media, establishments, or other people try to sell you.
- Live in the moment and take full use of it.
- Get involved in non-monetary giving through charities and other causes that assist those who are less fortunate.
- Instead of concentrating on what you lack, be thankful for what you do have.
- Avoid dwelling on your life too much, especially the things you feel are missing.
- Concentrate on the opportunity to practise loving kindness, generosity of spirit, and thankfulness for the people in your life.
- Concentrate on those aspects of your life that you can change and stop thinking about the things you can’t.
- Practice self-compassion and kindness toward oneself. Try to treat yourself with the same consideration, kindness, and generosity that you would show to others.
- Deal with potential pressures quickly. Planning for the holidays can be hectic, so complete tasks early and avoid going overboard. Recognize what duties and tasks you can do realistically. It’s crucial to stick to your spending limit [during the holidays] and make early plans for your gifts.
- Get adequate rest. Both can reduce stress, improve your overall health, and help you feel less guilty about missing out on all the parties and dinners.
- Even if you are alone at home, make every effort to adhere to a regular schedule.
- If you are managing an illness, make a list of a few things you want to accomplish each day.
- Keep a daily journal about your feelings and activities. You’ll feel more in control of the issue if you use any of these tracking tools.
- Stay up to date. An online survey of 1210 respondents from 194 cities in China in a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health revealed that people who had access to the most recent health information and recommendations on precautionary measures had better psychological functioning and resilience.
- Keep your media intake in check. It can be exhausting to watch too much news, read too many articles, and consume too much stuff. Consider checking the news twice daily. If everyone is discussing the virus on social media, you could also opt to reduce your time spent there.
- Continue to be active. We occasionally forget that our physical and mental health are intricately interwoven, even while it’s simple to concentrate solely on how to manage your mental health and loneliness directly during a crisis. Your capacity to deal mentally will suffer if you spend weeks alone without engaging in any physical activity.
- Make a donation or volunteer at the food bank in your area.
- Take meaningful action. The absence of a sense of purpose may also contribute to loneliness. A lack of meaning may be impacting you if you notice that you feel not only bored but also that you’re losing your identity. We all want to feel like we belong and that our lives matter, which is why it’s crucial to include meaningful activities in each day. You’ll feel more purposeful and have a sense of identity if you engage in meaningful activity every day, even for a brief period.
- Build relationships. Connect often with family, friends, and coworkers whom you won’t be able to visit in person during this holiday season using Facetime, phone, Zoom, and other technical means. much better, mail a handwritten note or postcard.
- Seek out sources of solace and self-care: treat yourself to a foot massage or foot spa, spend time with your pet, prepare wholesome comfort food, read your favourite books, sip some chamomile tea, and listen to your favourite music.
- Begin a writing project. Take up hand lettering or calligraphy, keep a journal, write poetry or Haiku, short tales, or begin a novel.
- Instead of blowing your budget, using up all of your life savings, or having to sell a kidney to get by, give a thoughtful homemade present from the heart.
- Give the gift of living better, kinder, more honest, more committed to your family, gentler, with more courage and compassion and love and forgiveness, more faithful and hopeful and positive and thoughtful as you finish the year and begin the next.
- Write a letter to someone you love, or someone you need to forgive, or whom you’ve offended, telling them how much you care for them and appreciate them as you wish them a Merry Christmas.
The Christmas holidays can be a time of joy, happiness and gratitude for individuals and families. Developing strategies to deal with negativity and stress is equally as important as focusing on having a good time. Finally, taking time and effort to reach out to people to with kindness and generosity, particularly the less fortunate, can make the celebrations more meaningful.