Popular culture pictures the Christmas season as a Hallmark movie. We could call it “The Hallmark Effect.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there's anything wrong with a Hallmark movie. Just don’t confuse it with real life. In these kinds of movies, you have picturesque small towns, cozy coffee shops, attractive people, beautiful clothes, great coffee, tastefully decorated homes, tasteful coffee, and it always ending with the high of finding or restoring a loving relationship. There is also lots of coffee if you didn’t already get that.
For many, the holidays bring on a different kind of challenge. I for one love the holidays. Since I serve in a support role to churches, the end of the year is a time when I can slow down. This time of year, the churches, and pastors I serve are very busy with their Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. Karen (my wife) and I have saved up all year for gifts and we enjoy shopping together and being able to spend money without debt. We spend time with family, give gifts, and enjoy fun and good food.
Not everyone has this experience. For many, the holidays are times of sadness and regret. I know families who lost a loved one in death. It is a challenge for them to enjoy this time of year. I know others who, because of addiction, dread this time of year due to the social triggers it brings. Others have gone through separation in their families due to disruptive events. Parents and children of divorce find this time extremely challenging. It hurts no matter who is to blame or if no one is to blame.
With the above in mind, I offer just five suggestions for those who struggle with their mental health during the holidays.
1. Keep realistic expectations during the holidays.
I already talked about the Hallmark effect. These movies and the ones like them aren’t real life. The worst thing that happens in these movies is that someone got regular milk in their latte’ instead of soy. When arguments take place, they are resolved quickly and harmony is restored.
Stay grounded. Sure, we all have holiday expectations. We want it to be perfect. But it is not going to be perfect because nobody around us is perfect, including ourselves. During these times, some people are nice, but many people are stressed. Thanksgiving and Christmas are opportunities for us to put our best foot forward, but you also must keep in mind that human nature is not suspended during this time of year.
Be optimistic, but don’t let your optimism go so far that you become disappointed when all your hopes and dreams don’t materialize. Have expectations but keep them in check.
2. Talk about your losses.
If you have not thoroughly processed the losses you have experienced, confide in a person who will be able to empathize with you. I didn’t say sympathize but empathize. What you need is a person who can understand what you are experiencing not someone who will just feel sorry for you.
Finding a recovery group during this time of year may be the best gift you give to yourself. Some years ago, my wife and I experienced a trauma in our lives we couldn't process by ourselves. Someone we trusted strongly recommended we at least try a support group. I’m so glad we did. It was hard at first but sharing our feelings and fears with others who endured similar trauma activated real healing power. Often, we tell ourselves that “no one understands” or that “nobody will care”. Don’t you believe it. There are people like you, yes, just like you who want to hear your story. You need to hear their story as well.
3. Don’t go over your limits and avoid your triggers.
The celebrations this time of year seem to all have at least one thing in common: Too much of a good thing. There is too much food, too much eating, too much drinking, too much spending, too much travelling, and too much preparation. Sure, we want this time of year to be special. I remember when I was a pastor, Karen and I one year were invited to 17 Christmas parties. It was our first year in our church and we decided that if we were invited, we would go. Not a good plan. We love being with our church and eating all the food but by the time Christmas came around I was looking more like Santa Clause than I wanted. You don’t have to go to a party just because you were invited. Make sure you get some rest, even from the fun stuff.
Like it or not, January is coming. You cannot live like the holidays will never end. As believers we can live like Christmas will never end, but not the holiday.
Don’t put yourself in situations where you know you will be vulnerable. If being around some people brings you down, minimize the time you must spend with them. Perhaps you can even control the environment and the amount of time you spend with them. If you must go to an event or a place where you can be triggered, tell someone you trust to help you by holding you accountable for your actions. If you can bring a safe person with you to that gathering, do so.
4. Make new memories and traditions.
We can reach a stage in our lives where the old traditions end pulling us down instead of lifting us up. They’ve stopped reminding us of things like gratitude and joy. It may be time to start some new traditions. Change the way you give gifts. Serve in a charity of some kind that would benefit others. Insert a new game or challenge in your holiday festivities. Let your imagination go wild. The best way to move past an old tradition is to replace it with a new one. The bottom line on all this is for us to remember the real meaning of Christmas. God’s fulfilled his promise to send a Savior to rescue us from our sin and redeem us so that we may be restored in our relationship with God.
5. Focus on connecting with others.
We are created for community. Isolation is not good for the soul and being alone during the holiday season is even worse. Try to connect. Call someone and meet them for coffee. Bring a little gift of appreciation for their friendship.
Place yourself in situations that allow for invitations to social events. Hang out with different people than you usually do. Even if it’s just for a little while. The Bibles states it this way: “A man who has friends must himself be friendly….” (Proverbs 18:24, NKJV)
Volunteer to serve others. I mentioned this earlier, but it is still good for connecting with others. There is a natural and long-lasting connection that happens between people who are working toward something greater than themselves. When you volunteer to do good to someone else you are investing in their lives. But even more important you are living out the Christian life. You will be blessed by blessing others in ways not imagined. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35b, NKJV) So, serve in a toy drive, a food distribution, or a holiday meal for the needy. Look around you at the needs of others, perhaps you will be inspired to start something that will meet a need not yet addressed. Your life and your heart will grow in the process.
I pray the best for you this Christmas season. Thank you for allowing me to serve you. Merry Christmas and I truly desire for you to have a happy New Year.