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What To Do If You Are Unhappy Or Depressed At Christmas

The Christmas season can be very difficult for some people

We are told that Christmas, for Christians, 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 depression.

Hospitals and police forces report  incidences of suicide and attempted suicide. Psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals report a significant increase in patients complaining about depression. One North American survey reported that 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season.

It is often a time that some of my clients who are facing emotional or relationship challenges in life, find very difficult.

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Why? 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)? 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.

For some people, they get depressed at Christmas and even angry because of the excessive commercialization of Christmas, with the focus on gifts and the emphasis on "perfect" social activities. Other get depressed because Christmas appears to be a trigger to engage in excessive self-reflection and rumination about the inadequacies of life (and a "victim" mentality) in comparison with other people who seem to have more and do more.

Still others 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.

So what should you do, if you're among those who become unhappy or get depressed at Christmas? Mental health professionals who treat people with this problem suggest the following:

  • First, if the depression is serious, seek out the help of a qualified mental health professional;
  • 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.

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.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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