Why is it that so many people experience depression, anxiety, and even anger during the Christmas season? And if they are in therapy, what can be done about this?
The main reason? Christmas focuses our attention on relationships, the very relationships that are often problematic the rest of the year. Grown children think about their parents, and parents about their grown children, bringing up mutual memories not just of good cheer, but of family roles and conflicts that brought pain to all.
Ex-spouses experience the additional difficulty of trying to coordinate two Christmases, one that their ex-wife or husband puts on for their children, and the other that they put together. This shuffling of the kids back and forth can be awkward or abrasive. It reminds divorced couples of all the things they never liked about each other. And when you add the possibility that one or both of them is now remarried, the complications multiply for feeling unappreciated, jealous, or otherwise discontent.
Christmas also impacts work environments, because a person's mood can be affected by whether they received a bonus and if it met their expectations. There can be struggles about how much vacation time is allotted and who within the business gets it.
Another difficulty that most people experience, especially during economic hard times, revolves around gift giving. How can you guess what someone else really wants? And how can you afford to buy the gifts you'd like to give without being in debt the rest of the year?
All this is pretty much standard fare for human misery during a season which celebrates happiness and good will. So we therapists need to relax and expect our clients to share with increased intensity their personal woes. They will find new peace in our caring for them. Beyond this, we therapists do well to handle our own Christmas blues in psychologically and spiritually constructive ways, even as we seek to help those who confide their issues to us.
Are there general guidelines to what will help most people, including our clients, to have a relatively fulfilling Christmas? Here are a few principles that deserve mention to counselees:
- Lower your expectations about other people's behavior during the Christmas holidays. If you set high expectations that other people, especially your relatives, should be kind, generous, and unselfish, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment and anger. It is wiser to expect people you know to keep behaving like they always do. Those who are by nature generous will keep being generous, whereas those who are critical and egotistical will keep being critical and egotistical.
- Set lower rather than higher goals for gift purchases. A limited amount of money can buy unique things at lower cost, and fewer things at higher cost. Trust in the maxim, "It's the thought that counts," to buy things you can afford that nevertheless speak to the identity of the person you care about.
- Adopt an attitude of relaxed cordiality, showing up for a gathering of the relatives or a drop-off of the kids to an ex-spouse's home with a degree of social warmth.
- Accept up front that not all of your expectations for companionship or material acquisitions can be met, so make these desires modest so that they can be fulfilled. (I worked with a single female client of forty who dreaded spending Christmas alone, encouraging her to throw the Christmas party she had been hoping someone else might throw. She developed a list of twenty people who agreed to attend, and decided to think of these folks as her "resident family," since her own family could not get together).
- If someone starts to get snippy, or brings the kids two hours late, don't upset yourself about it. Consider it inconvenient but not catastrophic. Make the adjustment, then focus on becoming absorbed in the positive Christmas spirit that you yourself are creating.
Of course in your practice you'll hear many other variations of the Christmas blues, but I'm sure that your provision of healthy psychological overviews and coping strategies will greatly assist your clients to have a more fulfilling Christmas.
My personal relationship with Christ strengthens me through Christmas to help distraught clients. I've know Jesus intimately for sixty Christmas seasons now. I've found that I don't have to hide my anxieties or depression from Him. Jesus has consistently shown me that He understands the difficulties of the human journey, and that He will help me in mysterious ways to find a measure of peace, joy, and love — amidst trials and adversity — at Christmas.