What should we do when Christmas doesn't feel like a season of joy, peace, and love?
According to Christians, a simple yet miraculous event occurred in the town of Bethlehem on what is now known as Christmas. A loving God with a plan for salvation entered the world through the birth of a child, Jesus.1 Today, Christians believe that a relationship with Jesus—who lived a perfect life, died for our sins, and was resurrected from the grave—guarantees our salvation from the eternal consequences of sin and death.2
Christmas celebrates the birth of this savior and the beginning of God’s plan to save mankind. But sadly, what is touted as the most wonderful time of the year is, for many of us, the most dreaded time of the year. Instead of joy, love, and peace, the Christmas experience is filled with loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Maybe this is true for you.3
Christians believe we were created with a need for relationship intimacy by a God who desires relationships with us. In fact, according to the biblical account of the creation of the world, God noted from the beginning that it is not good for mankind to be alone.4
Though the world now contains over seven billion people, it’s actually quite easy to become—or at least to feel—isolated. Many of us live in a fast-paced, highly mobile world. It’s not uncommon to be geographically separated from family and friends. Sure, you may be around people at work every day, but those relationships often lack intimacy—a close, deep, and meaningful connectedness.
Of course, geographic distance is not the only reason for isolation. Relationship conflict can be a culprit as well. Sometimes loved ones may be close geographically but are emotionally distant because of unresolved conflict.
No matter the cause, loneliness can be a powerful and destructive feeling.
Loneliness during a time when togetherness is emphasized can easily lead to depression. Feeling isolated from others can bear down on us and, unfortunately, pave the path for feelings of despair and sadness.
On the other hand, the pressure to be together physically during the holidays—even if we’re not prepared to do so emotionally—can have the same effect. You know this is happening when you feel that sense of dread about being together. This dread often gives way to guilt and depression over our own lack of excitement about being with certain friends or family members.
Holidays can also trigger feelings of grief associated with relationship loss, such as death or diminished capacity due to illness. Holiday traditions just don’t feel the same. We may feel guilty, like we are dishonoring the missing family member or friend by celebrating Christmas without them. Time, sensitivity, and patience are required to allow for grief and adjustment. We can demonstrate empathy for others by understanding a person’s need to grieve.
For some it’s the post-holiday adjustment that triggers loneliness and depression. Visitors go home and the reality of being alone sets in. Long stretches of time between holiday visits can easily foster feelings of aloneness. Consistent periodic visits between the holidays can help relieve these feelings.
But loneliness and depression aren’t the only negative feelings many of us struggle with during the holidays. Anxiety plays a starring role in many people’s holiday experience.
Society’s approach to Christmas focuses mainly on secular features, missing its religious and eternal significance. The beautiful, quiet miracle of Jesus’ birth has become a complex economic sideshow that starts a little earlier each year.
We barely make it to the end of October before we are bombarded by Christmas decorations and pre-Christmas sales. Excessive pressure to find fantastic gifts, to create impressive decorations, to prepare the perfect meal, and to push budgets to their breaking points generates stress. We put so much pressure on ourselves and set such high expectations that our joy is often diminished by unavoidable anxiety and inevitable disappointment.
Steps to Reduce Loneliness, Depression, and Anxiety during the Holidays
And so the stage is set. Loneliness, depression, and anxiety can quickly overtake the peace intended to be found in the holiday season. Just look at the faces around you during the holidays. Do you ever notice that the joy is missing from many of them—perhaps from your own?
So what’s the solution? Here are a few steps that may help you reduce the negative feelings associated with the holidays. As is always the case, change takes time. Be patient.
1. Set simple and realistic expectations for the holidays.
Don’t make the holidays bigger than they can be. Though we often hope the holidays will somehow magically fix our problems, unrealistic expectations about the holidays only exacerbate existing conflict. Set simple expectations of yourself and others.
We do this by managing our beliefs about what “must” occur. Often we believe that we must find the perfect gift, we must cook the perfect meal, we must have the perfect conversation. These “musts” create unrealistic expectations, because life is seldom—if ever—perfect.
Create more realistic expectations by keeping it simple. Get a gift receipt in case the gift doesn’t work. Remember that the fun is just being together, no matter what we eat. The holidays are already emotionally charged, so keep the conversation topics safe. There’s plenty of time after the holidays to have those difficult conversations.
Identify your “musts” for the holidays and replace them with more realistic expectations.
2. Identify people to spend the holidays with.
Remember my earlier statement that we are created with a need for intimacy? None of us do well in the long-term without relationship intimacy. Distance and conflicting schedules may prevent us from spending the holidays with family, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be alone.
Identify others who are separated from family and celebrate the holidays together. We can create a surrogate family by inviting others to share the holidays with us. Explore avenues to connect with people. Church can be a wonderful place for being around like-minded individuals. Participate in church holiday activities, enjoying the fellowship with others. Get creative. If possible, join family and friends through web-conferencing tools like FaceTime and Skype.
3. Set an appropriate budget for Christmas and stick with it.
Economic distress and anxiety associated with holiday overspending can be avoided. The commercialization of Christmas is a manmade trend. Christmas began with a gift to mankind that is often lost in the commercialization of gift-giving.
Even the most expensive gifts eventually have to be replaced. The real gift at Christmas is God’s eternal love for us. Though it is not bad to give gifts, moderation in gift-giving is healthy. Set an appropriate budget for holiday spending. Make a commitment to stick with that budget. That way you can enjoy giving gifts and not overextend yourself financially.
4. Avoid using the holidays as an opportunity to address family conflict.
The holidays are typically not the best time to focus on resolving family conflict, though it can be tempting to try to do so. Family gatherings over the holidays can be tense even when no conflict exists. Add that to a history of unresolved conflict and you have the ingredients for emotional fireworks.
A diplomatic gathering focused on holiday festivities and intentionally avoiding unresolved conflict may be best. You may have to kindly redirect family members who drift back to the issues of conflict. Focus on current events; catch up on each other’s present lives. This isn’t to say that unresolved conflict should never be addressed—just not during the holidays. After all, there is a time for everything.5
5. Volunteer to help others during the Christmas holiday.
Volunteering through community organizations and churches is a great way to be around others during the holidays. Volunteering is an opportunity to give the gift of service while simultaneously reducing isolation.
Depression and anxiety are often fueled by heightened self-focus. Volunteering shifts one’s focus off self and onto others who are in need. Feeling powerless to impact change is common among symptoms of depression and anxiety. Impacting others positively through service can help identify one’s power to cause change. Recognizing such power can then be channeled into addressing one’s own depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
6. Focus on the true meaning of Christmas and your relationship with God.
God desires a relationship with us. Christmas is a great time to establish or renew our relationship with him. Though we may feel isolated and alone, we are reminded that God is always with us.6 The gift of a relationship with Jesus was given to all of us.
The Christmas Spirit
While celebrating the holiday season, keep in mind that—even if you’re not—others may be struggling to find the “holiday spirit.” Make efforts to include those whom you know may be without friends or family in your festivities this year.
Christmas is a celebration of God’s love for us. One of the best ways we can commemorate and honor this is by showing our love for one another. Jesus himself said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”7
This Christmas, do your best to spread cheer and love in an authentic, sincere way. May your efforts grant one more person a Christmas that is merry and bright.