What To Do When You Find Christmas Difficult…

What To Do When You Find Christmas Difficult

Christmas 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.

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.

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.

People can 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.
  • Focusing too much on what you don’t have. Being mindful of what you do have 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 tailspin. And if you’re prone to anxiety and depression, stress (and a lack of sleep) can take a significant toll on your mood. “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.”

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 a mental health professional.

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.


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Ray Williams


Ray Williams an Author and Executive Coach. He has written four books and published more than 300 articles on leadership…

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