By Laura Captari
“It’s the most [stressful] time of the year…” the Christmas carol may well say. More than just shopping and family gatherings, the Christmas season brings with it an increased risk of a number of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, abuse, and even suicide attempts.
To date, there has been very little research in this area. However, a recent article on “How Christmas Festivities and Pressures Can Damage Health and Well-being” reports:
“The impact of Christmas can be profound and not always positive. The effects range from increased stress, family conflicts and alcohol misuse to heightened loneliness, increasing mental health difficulties and domestic violence. The global economic downturn and associated money worries are likely to make this Christmas more stressful than most.”
As Christian counselors, it’s important to know how to protect ourselves from holiday stress. More than that, it is also critical that we assess for depression and anxiety when meeting with clients, particularly during this time of year. Some areas to consider are:
Trying to “Do it All”. Christmas parties. Advent services. Cantatas. Road trips to visit family. Last-minute shopping. Baking. Cleaning. Gift wrapping. The sheer number of commitments and responsibilities associated with Christmas can lead any of us to lose our temper, get anxious, or get sick. Saying “no” sometimes does wonders to holiday stress, clearing our minds to focus on what matters most. As you are confronted with invites and commitments, ask God for wisdom about how to invest your time and energy. Build in time to journal, pray, and meditate on Christ. Time with God will change your perspective and alleviate your stress!
Unrealistic Expectations. It’s important to have holiday traditions, but keep in mind, there is no “perfect” Christmas. Well-behaved kids, a perfectly neat house, and stress-free family gatherings are probably unrealistic. When you hold yourself to unrealistic expectations, you’re just setting yourself and your family up for frustration and disappointment. Rather than draining yourself, why not embrace this Christmas as an opportunity to experience God even in the midst of a less-than-perfect celebration? Discuss your expectations as a family and consider adjusting them if needed.
Family Conflicts. Making decisions about holiday plans often leads to disagreements with our spouse, kids, and extended family. Rick Warren wisely said that in every family there’s at least one “EGR” individual—extra grace required. Isn’t that the truth! We all need extra grace around this time of year! Honesty and clear communication can help prevent major conflicts. In talking through decisions, seek to listen and understand your spouse’s point of view, rather than pushing your way. Whenever possible, try to find a compromise. After all, “peace on earth” begins with peace in our homes. You can’t control other people’s behavior, but you can ask God to help you be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (Jas. 1:19).
Grieving a Lost Loved One. For many families this Christmas, there will be an empty chair at the table—a parent, spouse or loved one who has recently passed away. Holidays have a way of triggering memories and making grief fresh. From a mental health perspective, it’s important not to suppress grief. Process it together with your family, a trusted friend, or a counselor. As a family, talk about the good memories you have. Consider writing a letter to your loved one or use some other outlet to express your emotions in a healthy way. Remember that “[T]he Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:8).
Financial Concerns. An APA survey identified lack of money and the pressures of gift-giving as the two top holiday stressors. It’s easy to make extravagant purchases to “keep up with the Jones’s”, but going into debt for Christmas is no way to ring in the new year! Simplify your gift giving—only purchase what you can pay for. This year, focus on spending time together building memories with family and friends rather than just giving lavish gifts. More than that, ask God for wisdom and consider giving to people who are needy and financially struggling. The world is focused on getting; why not build your Christmas around giving and investing in others?
Loneliness. Christmas can be one of the most difficult times to be alone. Isolation, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and poor diet are all predictors of holiday depression. If you live alone or your family is not in the area, invite friends, church members, and neighbors over. Enjoy holiday activities and traditions together. Reach out to those you know who are in need. Practice gratitude. If you find yourself feeling sad or hopeless, seek out help.
As a Christian counselor, how have you helped clients navigate holiday stress? Take a moment to share your thoughts below.
Laura Captari serves as the Director of Professional and Public Relations at the American Association of Christian Counselors in Forest, VA. To contact her, email email@example.com.