Battling the Christmas Blues

Blue Christmas is not just a classic Elvis Presley holiday song. Sadly, the melancholy tune represents a very real occurrence. Many people—especially those who struggle with depression or anxiety—feel a heightened sense of sadness during the holiday season. Many of our friends and neighbors experience a blue Christmas.

According to the National Institute of Health, Christmas is the time of year that people experience a higher incidence of depression. Psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals report an increase in patients complaining of depression. Psychology Today conducted a survey that reported that 45 percent of respondents dread the festive season.

We asked Cecilia Bloomquist, MSW, LICSW, with the Human Development Center in Grand Marais, why all this despair during what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year? Bloomquist says there are many factors.

“Christmas can be expensive for families and people feel obligated to buy gifts for their loved ones, which can impact a family’s finances. Having to manage a tight budget, entertain the children during their school break, and provide a nice dinner for a family, it’s stressful.” said Bloomquist. “Others don’t have company for the holidays which might increase the sense of isolation and hopelessness during those times.”

“Most people think that they must feel happy and be in good spirits around the holidays,” said Bloomquist. “However, holidays are often emotional moments charged with good—and negative—memories from the past.”

Lindsey Gau, program advocate for the Violence Prevention Center, agrees. She notes that there are many reasons that family gatherings can be stressful.

“Differences between family members on values, beliefs and opinions can cause tension. Sometimes there are certain members of a family that are not speaking to one another which can make for difficult navigation in planning holiday gatherings.

“It can also be incredibly difficult to spend time with family members that exhibit unhealthy relational dynamics such as poor boundaries, untreated mental illness, addiction, neglect, emotional, verbal, physical, financial, religious or sexual abuse,” said Gau.

The difficulties can be intensified for adult survivors of sexual violence or domestic/family violence, says Jodi Yuhasey of the Violence Prevention Center. “Some survivors may not have talked about their trauma with other people. There may be tension with family members who do not want to accept that abuse occurred. And there could be personal conflict because the survivor still loves the relative who harmed them.”

Yuhasey says there may be additional stress for an adult survivor with children who may want to provide the “perfect” holiday for their children, compared to the holidays they had growing up.

How can a person avoid a blue Christmas?

Consider not taking part in gatherings that are too painful.

Yuhasey says, “Remember you have the choice if you want to attend family gatherings.”

She added if you choose to spend the holidays with family, you need to take care of yourself. Yuhasey and Gau shared some suggestions such as:

Set boundaries. Both physical and emotional boundaries help to prevent stress. Start and finish times can be set and clearly communicated around holiday activities.

Avoid discussing triggering topics. Remind yourself that you do not have to engage in discussions that are uncomfortable.

Identify alternative housing plans. Consider staying with a friend or non-offending family member. If finances allow, stay in a motel or hostel.

Avoid drinking alcohol or set a limit. Alcohol can increase the chance of conflict.

Know your limits and be aware that you can leave the situation if it becomes too much to handle. 

Practice self-care. Take quiet walks, spend time with friends, do relaxing activities such as taking baths and listening to music. 

Bloomquist notes that people suffering from depression often feel alone. She assures them they are not.

“All human beings are faced with moments of suffering. It’s true that everyone has a unique story, but the depressive feeling isn’t. People can relate with your feeling if you allow them to do so.”

Talking to someone about your feelings is important, she says, even though it may be hard.

How can you help?

It may also be hard for friends and family who don’t suffer from depression or anxiety to hear what is being said, to understand—or to know what to do.

Bloomquist says, “It’s okay to not know what to say, just allow yourself to listen with an open mind and no judgement. The best support you can give is to validate your loved one’s feelings by listening and being there for them. Avoid minimizing their feelings, providing advice, and trying to fix their problems. They need to know that someone will be there for them and they are not alone. Provide nurturance by letting them know that it’s okay to feel sadness, and remind them that things can get better and they will over time. Tell them that you love them and that you care. When people feel supported they are often able to overcome sad moments.”

For people who don’t have a support network, finding ways to stay connected with others is the key, adds Bloomquist. She said there are ways to connect with people during the holidays. Attending church gatherings or volunteering are great strategies.

“An excellent way to increase your sense of satisfaction is by doing things for others, trying to make something good for someone for no reason, just because you want to make a positive difference in the world,” said Bloomquist.

If you need help

If symptoms are severe and persistent—especially if someone is experiencing suicidal ideation—it’s important to seek medical care because depression can be life threatening.

Contact the professionals at the Human Development Center at (218) 387-9444.

The Violence Prevention Center encourages people who may need support around the holidays to stop by their office in the NorShor Building at 21 West 2nd Street, Grand Marais or call. The VPC has a 24/7 hotline that is run by trained advocates to support anyone experiencing domestic and/or sexual violence. 

By Rhonda Silence