When Stress and Depression Take “Merry” Out of Christmas
Does stress badger you over the Christmas holidays? Do you need lots more time than you have left to accomplish the expected tasks and fulfill seasonal social obligations? Ever feel like you “need a vacation” at the end of your time off work in late December? Does the annual gathering with relatives generate more apprehension than warm anticipation?
If you’re depression-prone, do your symptoms escalate as Christmas approaches? Is it difficult to meet the social expectation of feeling festive and upbeat? Are you discouraged because, as a Christian, you think you should feel merry this time of year, but don’t?
Almost half (49%) of U. S. residents report “moderate stress” during the holidays, while 38% admit to joy-sapping severe stress. What causes this increase?
Those who lost a loved one to death or divorce during the year face the first Christmas without a spouse, parent or child. Their grief spikes. A more common relational strain is the extended family gathering over dinner. Different political or religious views surface in conversations, creating tension and resulting in arguments that wreck havoc on the atmosphere. Or resentment simmers because of past hurts caused by someone else seated around the table.
In 2022, individuals in the U. S. spent an average of $826 dollars for Christmas gifts. That doesn’t include costs for travel, extra food for holiday meals and concert tickets. A lot of folks bow to the social pressure of gift giving, despite knowing they can’t afford it. Or they’re glum because they don’t possess enough money to please everyone on their gift list. Whether we’re scrolling through Facebook, reading the newspaper or watching TV, a proliferation of ads for “must have” products or gifts bombard us, creating a false sense of need.
We take more shopping trips to find just the right gift for everyone, often stalled in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Or we spend almost as much time scouring online stores for the best deals and the safest way to pay. We devote evenings to social gatherings related to our employment or local church. We spend time baking and planning the long road trip or flight to visit relatives. We perceive these events as meaningful, yet the endeavors drain our energy and siphon off time. Instead of exhibiting a grateful and jubilant mood due to celebrating our Savior’s birth, we often can’t wait until Christmas is over so we can relax.
Is stress reduction possible?
Mull over these questions and ask the Holy Spirit to question you.
What causes the stress that you feel during the holidays? Which of these causes of anxiety do you control?
To alleviate the stress, what changes or policies should you implement? What “good” things on your calendar have become the enemy of better things? To focus more on Christ and serving others this December, what typical functions or activities should you sacrifice? What can you add to facilitate a more spiritually-meaningful Christmas?
To establish new traditions and delete others, who needs to be on board with you? With whom do you need to talk? (Spouse? Adult or at-home children? Church staff?)
Look into your rearview mirror at past Christmases. Identify your most spiritually meaningful Christmas ever. Does that warm memory offer a clue concerning how to make this Christmas season more spiritually consequential and less stressful?
The number of persons who report serious depression doesn’t spike in December. But persons previously diagnosed with depression get worse this time of year. According to NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill), 64% of persons who already live with a mental illness report an escalation of symptoms during December. What explains the increase?
Increased Stress May Fuel Depression
Though a significant majority of people who report an increase in stress during the holidays aren’t depressed, the factors generating stress in the general public exert a greater impact on sensitive, depression-prone persons. It’s more difficult to manage depression through exercise, adequate sleep and other coping strategies when a more crowded schedule and an escalation of social obligations eliminate margin and deplete adrenalin.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
S. A. D. is a type of depression that either surfaces or worsens during fall and winter, when less daylight likely triggers a chemical change in the brain. The plummeting mood of depression-prone individuals would likely occur this time of year even if Christmas weren’t in December, but when you add a S.A.D. disorder to holiday stress factors, the threat to one’s mood increases significantly.
David Murray, author of Christians Get Depressed Too, pastored for 12 years in the Scottish Highlands, an area with one of the highest rates of depression in the world. He encountered many devout Christ-followers who repeatedly endured mental suffering and spiritual darkness during those darkest months that provided little or no sunshine. Initially, in an effort to help them, he probed for underlying sin or lack of faith. But the better acquainted he became with them, the more he realized that their problem wasn’t sin, a lack of faith or “unresolved issues.” Most of these people lived for Christ and exhibited Christlike character. In his words, they were “among the godliest Christians I’ve ever met.”
Murray’s up-close observation of Seasonal Affective Disorder led to additional research, eventually resulting in the book. In its pages, he identifies common misconceptions about faith and depression and offers concrete coping suggestions for sufferers and caregivers.
Misplaced Subjectivity Concerning the Meaning of Christmas
For many adults, especially those vulnerable to despondency, the meaning and specialness of Christmas seems elusive. Oh, how often over the years I’ve thought, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas this year!” The closer I get to Christmas, the greater emptiness and despair I tend to feel. There’s less eager anticipation, perhaps due to the fact my sons are in their 40s. Their excitement about Christmas as kids no longer enlivens me. The symptoms worsen on those Christmases when my wife and I aren’t with loved ones or don’t have guests in our home. The lack of others’ presence offers no diversion to fill the emotional hole inside me.
How do I combat the despair?
A Christmas Message
One helpful approach is a short sermon I preach to myself repeatedly in December. No, hearing it doesn’t totally eliminate despondency, but reminding myself of this perspective mitigates it. Here’s what I say to myself:
“Terry, the meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with your feelings or inward, subjective state. It has everything to do with objective truth, with historical fact!
Jesus’ birth, earthly life, death on the cross and resurrection fulfilled God’s strategy to reconcile you to Himself, to deal with the sin problem separating you from God. The primary reason for His birth was His death. Dying on the cross constituted His most important earthly accomplishment!
Yes, certain circumstances impinge on your emotional state at Christmas.
But if you don’t see your grown sons or your grandson and daughter-in-law at Christmas, and if no friends join you around the table;
if you don’t feel the so-called “Christmas spirit;”
If it seems like you’re going through the motions when you sing Christmas carols and attend holiday social events;
if you don’t sense God’s presence on that special day…
Well, in one sense, those things are irrelevant and immaterial!
You see, Terry, the meaning and specialness of Christmas isn’t inside you. It doesn’t depend on a particular attitude or emotion within you. It isn’t eclipsed by any kind of subjective state. Neither is it hampered by negative outside circumstances or influences.
The meaning of Christmas…just IS!!
The importance of Christmas is “Immanuel: God with us!”
He’s with you this Christmas because He pledged His presence, and His Word is far more reliable than your feelings (or lack of them). And Terry, the day will come when you won’t feel robotic or just go through the motions in worship services. You won’t feel sad or hopeless ever again. You won’t weep without understanding why. You’ll sing and offer praise with exuberance and face-splitting grins. You’ll finally understand what the Bible means when it refers to “exulting” in the Lord” (Psalm 5:11; Romans 5:11).
The despair you feel now at Christmas will ultimately increase appreciation for the unfettered joy you’ll feel then.
In the new heaven and new earth, “He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
If not before, that’s when you’ll feel the “Christmas spirit”–every day of the year!