In the classic holiday TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Charlie Brown laments to his friend Linus: “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”
Charlie Brown is not alone in his experience of depression at Christmas time — not by a long shot. According to Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “A lot of people would say that the holidays are the worst time of the year.” The reality is, “many feel miserable, and that’s not only for people with clinical depression.”
The “holiday blues” can be caused by a number of circumstances, such as personal grief, loneliness, illnesses of all kinds, economic concerns, current events, separation from family members and relationship issues like estrangement or divorce.
The various stressors of the holidays can easily make matters worse. Time, energy and finances are often stretched to the max, and family gatherings can be dreaded obligations. We have the notion that the beautiful Christmas decorations, festive holiday parties and sounds of “Jingle Bells” should make us happy. But they don’t.
Instead, we’re feeling down, anxious and “blue,” and that makes us even more miserable. These feelings are very real and, whether they’re our own or others’ feelings, they warrant attention and respect.
Thankfully, there are some things we can do to manage or minimize our holiday-related anxiety and depression. NAMI offers these suggestions. (For more information about holiday blues and/or mental illness, go to: nami.org/holidayblues.)
Tips for beating the holiday blues:
• Don’t worry about how things “should” be. Let go of idealized thinking regarding the perfect family and perfect Christmas.
• Be realistic. Practice saying, “No.”
• Don’t try to be a superhero. Acknowledge the complex dynamics of your family. Unity and peace may not be a realistic goal. Don’t be a martyr trying to accomplish it.
• Volunteer. Helping others (including animals) is a great strategy, especially if you feel lonely or isolated.
• Keep your own well-being in mind. Give yourself some “me time,” and take time for exercise.
• Give it some thought. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing things that make me miserable?” Remember you have a choice in how you spend your time, energy and money.
• Make sure the “holiday blues” haven’t become a scapegoat. Pay attention to your symptoms. If these feelings persist, there may be another biological or psychological cause for your depression and anxiety. Consult your physician.
NAMI medical director, Dr. Duckworth, shares one additional word of advice: “This is not an easy time of year for a lot of people. Be gentle with yourself.”
In this season of Advent, we long for gentleness and compassion. We find it in our loving God, the one who comes to us in the Child of Bethlehem. This gentle and compassionate God walks alongside us during our holiday blues, accompanies us through the dark days and into the light. And if we should find that our “blues” persist and the darkness doesn’t lift, God will remain with us, for God promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
Charlie Brown, I guess all there is to understand about Christmas is the Advent of Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us.” And, by the way, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you.
Debra Ost is pastor of Care Ministries at Trinity Lutheran Church, Stillwater. She was inspired to address the topic of “holiday blues” after attending the NAMI training, “Mental Health First Aid.” Lakeview Foundation sponsored this educational opportunity for area faith community nurses and other human services professionals.