For most people, the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas are firmly linked to merriment and joy. It’s a time of celebration, singing, gift-giving and time-honored family traditions.
But what about those who are not experiencing comfort and joy?
Research reveals that vast amounts of individuals deal with grief, loneliness, anxiety and/or depression during the holidays.
The World Health Organization and National Alliance on Mental Illness report that individuals with clinical depression — which affects approximately 280 million people globally — are 64% more likely to experience worsening symptoms from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.
Even those without a clinical diagnosis may deal with some form of holiday anxiety: A survey by the American Psychological Association found that 38% of people felt their stress levels increased during the holiday season, with many individuals experiencing “Seasonal Affective Disorder” during this time.
Christian counselor Stephanie Evans said the reason for the rise in cases around the holidays is not necessarily easy to pinpoint. The causes of depression can range from the loss of family members and friends to general loneliness and feelings of hopelessness.
“There are multiple factors that interplay around the holidays which can exacerbate areas in which individuals were already struggling,” said Evans, a licensed professional counselor and the wife of David Evans, senior pastor of Springfield Baptist Church in Springfield, Tennessee.
In many cases, the conditions are compounded by feelings of guilt. Those who are struggling with depression know they are “supposed” to feel happy at Christmas — which only makes them feel worse.
This is perhaps especially true for Christ-followers, who realize that celebrating the birth of Jesus should be a joyful time.
Christian counselor Lindsey Reeves, owner of Becoming Brave Counseling in Old Hickory, said she works with her clients to help them let go of that mentality.
“I try to dispel the belief that Christians shouldn’t struggle with things like grief,” Reeves said. “Just because we are believers, it doesn’t mean we are exempt from grief. In actuality, this can often be a ‘both-and’ scenario — meaning that it’s okay if the holidays are both hard and happy.
“There is no right way to do the holidays when you are grieving, and unfortunately, there is no timeline on grief,” Reeves said. “It is a process, not a destination.”
Finding solutions to depression and anxiety is not easy, of course, but there are ways to combat these issues, said Beth Kitzmiller, a licensed professional counselor and the owner and founder of Seed of Hope Counseling in Kingsport.
For those who are dealing with grief stemming from the loss of loved ones, she said, the healing process often begins with seeking help, which is not always an easy step to take.
“Some people are hesitant to seek counseling about their grief and loss because they think ‘everyone goes through this, so I should just deal with it,’ ” Kitzmiller noted.
“Grief counseling encompasses a therapist walking alongside the person in their grief and offering some ways to cope when it is overwhelming and helping the person find the path to move forward with hope for the future in the absence of the loved one,” she said.
A key component in overcoming anxiety and stress, Evans said, is by exercising “healthy coping mechanisms.”
These might include: talking with family and/or friends, continuing traditions which honor or remember those they have lost and connecting with support groups composed of individuals who have experienced a similar loss.
“Attending and plugging into a church body,” Evans said, can be one of the most important coping mechanisms. “God did not intend for us to do this journey alone,” she noted. “Talking with your pastor, youth leader or Bible study leader may also be helpful.”
Evans, Reeves and Kitzmiller each agreed that one of the most important things that the common person can do for their friends who are hurting is to simply “be there” for them.
Whether it’s just being a listening ear or perhaps going somewhere special, the key is to be available and patient, the doctors said.
“The best thing you can offer a friend dealing with loss is to allow them to talk about the loved one if they need to and just be present in their life,” Kitzmiller said.
“Remember the loss and check on the friend months after,” Kitzmiller added. “Typically, when a death occurs in our culture, we are great at circling around the family immediately after the death. The immediate sadness and loss is recognized and comfort offered but the ongoing adjustment and range of emotions one feels over the next year — as all the firsts without the loved one occur — can be extremely difficult.
“It is important to check in and see how the friend is doing and if there is anything you can do during that first year,” she said.
Reeves agreed, noting, “We are often afraid to ask people what they need (because) it requires a certain level of vulnerability and follow through on our part,” she said. “The question we should all be asking is, ‘How can I support you?’ or ‘What do you need?’ ”
“A proactive response to grief is best,” she added. “If the person asks you for space, give it, but don’t assume that they want it. Some people need you to just sit in their grief, not fix it.”
The doctors also agreed the holidays can be tricky for those who are dealing with emotional and mental heaviness.
“I define trauma as anything that changes one’s view of the world in a negative way,” Reeves said. “So, even though the holidays can look bright and shiny, somebody who is grieving has been through something traumatic, and that alters their view of everything, including the holidays.”
Although holiday stress is not a new development, the amount of anxiety has seemingly increased in recent years due to a wide range of variables, including the COVID-19 pandemic or maybe even angst brought on by social media.
“We live in a nation that has been through several years of significant trauma,” Reeves said. “COVID, along with political and financial unrest, has impacted everyone. Even the way we grieve has been impacted by it. Secondary trauma and burnout has impacted my field and providers are scrambling to meet the needs of so many people. This time of year, especially, is particularly busy.”
Kitzmiller has several recommendations in regard to helping grief-stricken individuals navigate their way through the holidays.
“First, recognize that grief is hard, especially during the holidays,” she said. “Remember and honor your loved one in some form that is meaningful to you during the season. Do not try to stuff or ignore your feelings — give yourself permission to feel the emotions as they come.
“Part of the grief process is learning how to move forward in life in the absence of the loved one,” she said. “This does not happen on a set timetable or script, wherever you are on the journey is okay.”
For those who are battling depression, Evans said, “Please know that help is available, hope is real, and you are not alone. There are professional counselors who can help you through this time.”
NOTE: If you, or someone you know, is experiencing thoughts of suicide please call/text 988 which is available 24/7 and is a free service. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can help prevent suicide as well as those experiencing other mental health emergencies. For more information on 988 please visit 988lifeline.org. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is also available in Spanish and for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.