Cooler weather. Changing leaves. Beautiful colors. Fall festivals. Pumpkin spice lattes. Thanksgiving. Football.
There’s no question, fall is my favorite season of the year.
My wife and I recently took our 12-month old son, Landon, to a pumpkin patch. As I watched Landon and his 16-month old friend, Aiden, walk their little legs through no more than the first 20 yards of a corn maze, I couldn’t help but notice how fascinated they were with every little detail along the path. They picked up nearly every rock, corn stalk, and pile of dirt along the way. So caught up in everything around them, they had no idea they were in a maze.
Until they turned around and couldn’t find a way out.
Trapped in a Maze
Life has a way of trapping us. Adolescents become captivated by the millions of messages they receive along their own journey, only to wake up one day in a maze of identity confusion. Adults, likewise, find meaning in the next business deal, job opportunity, or even their own kids, only to find themselves years later in a maze marked by an empty nest or a midlife crisis.
For others less fortunate, this maze happens every year. The now cold weather, shorter days, dead leaves, and lack of color reminiscent of the winter months is reflective of the depressed mood many find themselves in, unable to find a way out. For many caught in the maze of “holiday blues,” daily activities become more difficult. The family stressors (taking care of aging parents, divorce, unresolved conflict, etc.) during this hectic time are often exacerbated by the shopping, decorating, and cooking demands of the season itself—a recipe that can lead to increased alcohol use and skipped parties and family functions.
While there is very little research on or clear definition of the “holiday blues,” counselors and those who struggle with it can attest to its prevalence. In fact, nearly two-thirds of women surveyed reported that they had suffered from depression during the holidays in the previous year. [i] Men struggle too, and are at a higher risk for completed suicide when depressed. However, contrary to popular belief, no research has conclusively shown that suicides are higher during the holiday season.
As we discuss ways to make the most of the holiday season, I want to distinguish the difference between “holiday blues” and what was formally known as seasonal affect disorder (SAD). Though SAD is no longer a defined disorder, it is still a description for a major depressive disorder, “with seasonal pattern,” that can be applied at certain times of the year (fall, winter, summer).[ii] This latter type of depression usually requires professional intervention.
Have you picked up the Christmas carols, pumpkin pie, and high expectations of family gatherings along your seasonal path, only to find yourself lost in a maze of “holiday blues?” Fortunately, this maze doesn’t last long, as most people usually find the clearing within two weeks. Here are some tips for enjoying this wonderful season and avoiding the “holiday blues.”
E.N.J.O.Y.I.N.G your Holiday Season
Eliminate the Chaos. Despite what everybody else is doing, you can choose to simplify your life this holiday season. If shopping is a major stressor for you, consider doing it online this year. We personally use Amazon Prime for free shipping, no crowds, less headaches, and more meaningful family time together. Don’t waste your time standing in long lines trying to wrangle your children to behave when everything in you doesn’t want to behave in this very moment yourself. If you want great deals for yourself, wait until after Christmas.
NO! The most successful people in life have learned the art of saying no. Set family boundaries this year by not packing your schedule full of holiday events, or worse yet, events you’re in charge of.
Depending on the relational condition of your family, there may be functions this year you need to say no to for the benefit of your own well-being and that of your immediate family. If there are alcoholic or verbally and emotionally abusive people in your family, it may do you well to avoid them.
Juggle your Relationships Ahead of Time. If you foresee potential conflict with family members during upcoming holiday functions, and are still choosing to go, be proactive to engage those family members ahead of time. Call or visit them. Find out what is going on in their lives. Build trust with your family in advance so it’s less awkward when everybody is together.
Only Expect What’s Given. The greatest predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If you and your dad have a rocky past and have not spoken in six months, don’t expect all wounds to be healed on Christmas morning. If your family has been in turmoil, don’t expect to be the “fixer” over the holidays. Unmet expectations lead to the biggest disappointments. You won’t be surprised if your expectations of your family are exaggerated. Set realistic expectations and you won’t be let down.
You. Take time for you this holiday season. If you are making your spouse, your children, or any other family member the source of your life, you will have the “holiday blues.” They will let you down. The only source of life, the one who can meet all of your expectations, is Jesus Christ. Carve out moments each day to pray, meditate, and soak in the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the season and the reason for it. Be creative with this time and combine it with exercise, reading, or a hot bath.
Invite Others to Help You. If you are the primary cook, host, or family coordinator of holiday festivities, invite your spouse, kids, extended family, or friends to help you pick up items at the grocery store, decorate, and even cook. Delegate responsibilities to your children and help them learn new skills. If cooking is too much, consider a potluck this year. This is a great opportunity to turn mundane and stressful tasks into life-giving family memories.
Nightly Family Devotions. There is no better time to bring your immediate family together to learn about Jesus than the Christmas season. Perhaps you can start on Thanksgiving, go through Christmas, and as a family discuss each night one blessing you are grateful for in your life. My wife’s family started an Ebenezer, a monument of stones in front of their fireplace. Each stone has written on it an answered prayer from God in their family. It is a great conversation piece.
Give Back. There is no better season to give of your time and money than during the holidays. Some of our greatest holiday memories were when we gave to and visited families in need. Volunteering at your local homeless shelters, singing carols at nursing homes, or helping neighbors you know can be more cheerful for you than those you are blessing.
Here’s to E.N.J.O.Y.I.N.G. your holiday season!
Joshua Straub, Ph.D. is a speaker, author, counselor, and life coach. Coauthor of God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act and Feel the Way You Do About God and The Quick Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers, Josh specializes as a relational bridge builder between the generations. He enjoys combining empirical research with biblical wisdom to provide practical insight and inspiration for today’s relationships. He serves on the teaching team at Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, MO and is married to his favorite Canadian, Christi. Together, they are the proud parents of Landon Andrew.
[i] Wider, J. (2004). Beyond the holiday blues. Society for Women’s Health Research. Retrieved from http://www.womenshealthresearch.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5385&news_iv_ctrl=0&abbr=press_ on September 30, 2013.
[ii] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.