With all the Christmas songs, big annual sales, and “holiday cheer,” December is supposed be the happiest season of all. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or even Festivus, you will have some experience dealing with the December holidays. Perhaps you show up to a friend’s party, send some cards, or even go all-out with decorations. Yet no matter the level of involvement, many people come to find that they become more like the Grinch than Santa during this time of year. In fact, the National Institute of Health states that Christmas is the time of year with the highest incidence of depression. Despite the “holiday spirit,” the season sees increased reports from hospitals and police forces of suicide and attempted suicide and more patients complaining of depression according to mental health professionals. According to the NIH report, one North American survey even reported that 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season. This holiday stress affects mostly women anticipating the mountain of tasks related to preparing meals and decorating the home.
One of the most obvious reasons for the blues is seasonal depression. This occurs for many people yearly when the days grow shorter and darker and is a common phenomenon particularly with people who live in places with little sunlight during the winter. However, the extreme amount of stress that surrounds the holidays leads the malaise during the month of December to extend beyond just seasonal depression.
Excessive self-reflection and unrealistic expectations are thought to be additional causes of holiday stress. There is a lot of pressure related to the expectation to spend copious amounts of money on loved ones — not to mention to perfectly decorate the house and to prepare dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies. Time spent visiting family also adds to this pressure. Thrown in with all of this is the unrealistic pressure for everyone to be happy and have a good time. However, people who are struggling emotionally, financially, educationally, or otherwise often find themselves feeling lost and lonely with their inability to meet the unreasonable standards. “There are tons of extra demands,” says Nadine J. Kaslow, professor and chief psychologist at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “People feel like they want to do it just right. They run themselves ragged.”
Furthermore, the commercialization can make people’s heads spin. Black Friday is a perfect example of this: as soon as one holiday is over, it seems as if everyone needs to shift their focus to the upcoming ones. People physically hurt each other trying to get the best sale, the best gifts for their children. It is completely ridiculous. Stores are making us think about the holidays earlier and earlier. This year, I saw Christmas decorations come up as early as the middle of October, even before Halloween. The stress is already looming in the air in October — soon the whole year will become a prep-period for the holiday season!
Admittedly, there is some logic to preparing ahead of time. According to a study done by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 67% of people surveyed reported that lack of time was the most stressful aspect of the holidays. Perhaps these stores and people figure if you start early enough you won’t feel any last-minute stress, kind of like adequately planning and preparing for an essay or a test in school.
People often respond to stress in negative ways such as excessive drinking and overeating. Other consequences of poorly managed holiday stress include insomnia, migraines, and irritability. In the end, it is important to know yourself and realize when you need to take a break from all the commercialism, family, baking, etc. Prioritizing and breaking down what you have to do during the holiday season tends to be a good stress preventer. Breaking things down into manageable pieces makes it easier to digest the tasks at hand. And if the stress becomes unmanageable, it might be necessary to consider seeing a professional.
Despite the stress, first and foremost the holidays are a season for celebrating. On a happier note, stress and depression aren’t the only things people are feeling. According to Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, people also report positive holiday spirits: emotions such as happiness (78%), love (75%), and high spirits (60%).