Thank you for the courage and vulnerability to read this. When you’re hurting and it feels like everyone else is happy, it often feels easier to just shut down and pull away. You’re not doing that. It takes effort to resist that impulse. That is a wise, good choice. I pray God uses this reflection to help you gain understanding and find meaning during a difficult time.
We might start by asking, “Why are depression and grief heavier and thicker during the holiday and Winter season?” The list below is not meant to “explain away” your struggle, but to make it seem more reasonable. Too often, when we’re down, we beat ourselves up for not being able to “just get over it.” The way we chide ourselves adds to the weight of how we feel.
- Positive Expectations Lead to an Expectation Gap: Thanksgiving and Christmas are times when we expect life to be meaningful, merry, and filled with relationships. Unpleasant emotions are most difficult to navigate when we expect that we should festive. The gap creates a sense that we are being bad for feeling sad; it exacerbates any insecurities we may have about being behind or less than our friends. The positive expectations associated with the holidays magnifies everything that is already hard about grief and depression.
- Association and Powerful Memories: Grief is closely tied to remembering. Christmas and Thanksgiving are times with many memories. Whether the memories you have are wonderful or heartbreaking, holiday memories tend to register more intensely on the emotional Richter Scale. The decorations, greeting, advertisement, and events associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas prevent us from escaping these memories. They are in our face all the time.
- More Dark Hours and Less Aerobic Activity: This factor is more correlation than causation. The holiday season happens to coincide with the time of year when it gets dark early. Combine this with the colder weather and we get outside less. This means more darkness, less exercise, and less sun exposure; all of which are contributing factors to experiencing a down mood and a more difficult time elevating that mood.
- Loneliness Echoes More: If loneliness makes your experience of depression or grief more difficult during the months of January through October, this will be more pronounced in November and December. Our peer groups get pulled away to more family gatherings and Christmas parties. If we’re not in the same family or work circles, this means we are likely to see our closer friends less and be immersed in superficial relationships more. This effect can be particularly difficult for introverts who prefer to have fewer-but-deeper relationships and, therefore, find holiday parties to be emotionally stressful rather than life-giving.
- Loss of Life Rhythms: The season from Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s disrupts many of our daily and weekly rhythms. Work schedules change, family gatherings and work parties litter our schedule, regular activities take a break, and people we enjoy spending time with are facing the same irregularities. Many of us have enjoyable activities spaced throughout our week and month. These rhythms help maintain our emotional resilience. The holiday season is a time when many of these enjoyable rhythms get canceled to postponed. It feels like we get fewer emotional fresh breaths of air while we’re already wrestling with the challenges listed above.
What would you add to this list? Hopefully, this list is valuable to you in two ways. First, it may put into words things that you are experiencing but either couldn’t quite articulate or weren’t willing to validate as real challenges. Second, it may prompt you to say, “Not quite… its more like…” Either way, it helps you articulate your experience so that (a) it seems less nebulous, (b) you can invite others to support you in it, and (c) you can strategize ways to alleviate the hardship.
That brings us to the question you really wanted to know, “How should I respond to the weight of depression and grief during the Winter and holiday season?” There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but the approaches below can help you come up with an approach that fits your experience.
- Accept your down mood. Too often we repeatedly tell ourselves, “We shouldn’t feel this way,” or beat ourselves up for feeling down. This unnecessarily adds guilt to the experience of grief or depression. You might ask yourself, “If my grief or depression could talk, what would it say?” There may be a lot to affirm in your grief and depression; the value of relationships, how much you enjoy disrupted parts of your life, or even sadness over hard times. Sometimes affirming these things is an important part of embracing what is next.
- Don’t embrace your down mood. While your down mood may say some true things about life, it doesn’t say all that needs to be said about life. Listen to your grief or depression without giving it the final word. That doesn’t mean we get to choose how we feel, but our choices do influence our emotions. It can be helpful to discern, “Which life choices have the biggest positive influence on my emotions?” If you are not sure, view this list of 50 good mental health habits as a way to identify which choices would be most influential for you.
- Set aside time to grieve, but don’t only grieve. Even if, metaphorically speaking, grief and depression are different shades of blue, they are not the same experience. One way to think of grief is: grief is the celebration of something good, now absent, through tears. We grieve the absence of people and roles that blessed us. Our sadness is a celebration of how those people and roles blessed us. It is right to set aside time to grieve. By setting aside time to meaningfully grieve, we decrease (not eliminate) how much grief intrudes the rest of our day. This approach is more effective with past losses than recent losses.
- Talk to a friend. Self-awareness is not an end in itself; if it were, we would still be isolated. Self-awareness is a means to deeper relationships; it allows others to know us better. If you’re asking, “What do I do with the stuff I’m learning about myself to this point in the article?” the answer would be, “Share it with a trusted friend.” Let someone know you, pray for you, weep with you, affirm the good things your grief is celebrating, or bear part of the load your depression is creating. These are all very biblical ways that God designed relationships to bless our lives. The better we know ourselves, the more we can access the blessing God wants to give through friends.
- Remember, the Christian message of hope only makes sense in light of the universal need for hope. It’s okay if you’re still feeling a little cynical, because nothing in this article – understanding your emotions, good mental health habits, or talking to a friend – “fixes” your grief or depression. Even your dissatisfaction with the best available answers says something true; namely, that we are still living between the already and the not yet. God knows we will not be ultimately satisfied in a broken world. Our dissatisfaction screams, “There has to be more!” and it’s right. Both our sin and our suffering point us to the need for all things to be made new. In these moments, know that God is tender towards your pain like a good parent comforting a child who is upset about things that are beyond their control.
So, you’re probably asking, “What do I do now?” The best answer may be, “Nothing fast.” Experiences of suffering are rarely quick-fix scenarios. The pain of grief or depression often rushes us and when we can’t make things better fast, we feel like we failed. Take a deep breath. Write down the things from this article that best fit you. Pray an honest, friendly prayer to God about them (one where you’re not ashamed that life is hard, and you expect God to respond compassionately towards things being hard). Share whatever insights you gained with a friend. Then, identify some activities that are meaningful or emotionally healthy for you, and engage those activities. As often as things get hard, review your list and repeat these steps.Are you struggling with depression or grief during the holiday season? I hope you find this article a place where you feel understood and cared for. Click To Tweet
This case study was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “Helping with Grief and Depression Prompted by Seasonal Factors.” The webinar will be Thursday December 3rd at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.
These are great events for:
- Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
- Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
- Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
- Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
- Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times
Note: If you want to participate in many or most of the webinars in this series, when you RSVP click “auto subscribe to all future webinars,” so you don’t have to keep up with registering for each event.