Coping with sadness in a sea of holiday happiness

Charlie Brown Christmas. (Source: Peanuts/Charles M. Schulz)

By Victoria Hansen

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- If you want to quickly silence a room, especially this time of year, just say out loud, "I don't like the holidays."

Mouths will drop.{} Eyes will pop.{} How dare you?{} It's the most wonderful time of the year.

"It's quite true those who love the holidays often cannot fathom how anyone could possibly be sad during the most joyous time of the year," said Dr. Kelly Holes-Lewis.{}

She's the assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"But the reality is that not everyone feels the same sense of frivolity and merriment that others do," she said.

Whether it's feeling a sense of loneliness due to lost loved ones and friends, or reminiscing on holidays past, the flood of emotions can be overwhelming for some, Lewis said. While a loss may only coincidentally be linked to the holidays, it doesn't prevent some people from connecting the holiday season with the unrelated loss.

The stress can also come from having a birthday around one of the biggest holidays in the world. For Charles*, a Christmastime birthday is one of the biggest stress-inducers.

"I know they mean well and love to joke, but year after year having people slap me on the shoulder and say 'Merry Birthmas!' or 'Happy Christday!' just becomes a point of anger," he said.

Charles says the first few years was entertaining and he could chuckle as he unwrapped a box covered in bright Christmas paper only to find underneath that it's also covered in birthday wrapping paper.

"The joke got old," he said. "Asking for it to stop didn't work and I don't want to press the issue because they all seem to enjoy it so much. But I don't."

Then there's the focus on spending and gift-giving during the holidays. For people who want to buy gifts but lack the money, they can experience feelings of guilt and sadness.

"The holiday season can bring a feeling of distress and sadness to those who want to meet the 'expectations of Santa and Christmas' for their families," Lewis said.

Lewis says people often set their expectations too high as well as they hunt for that perfect gift. The result is excessive - and sometimes unaffordable - spending and even more stress.

Instead, Lewis says people would better serve both the gift's recipient and their own well-being if they focused on the demonstration of love instead of finding the perfect gift.

"The idea that there is only one 'just right gift' fades away and is replaced by numerous options of ways to show that you care," she said, adding that her favorite gifts are those that are carefully made by hand.

Another group that might cringe at the thought of the holidays is the elderly.

"One group of people that can often feel isolated is the elderly, who may have limited access to loved ones," she said.

And the evidence of a cloud hanging over some holiday heads is more than anecdotal. Studies have shown that depression increases around the holidays.

"Although the reasons for these feelings are likely quite varied, they often surround a single theme. That theme is actually a myth which is the belief that everyone else is having fun and engaged in loving relationships with their families during the holidays," Lewis said.

To make an unpleasant time worse, Lewis says, there is evidence that while depression grows, the numbers of people seeking help for those feelings during the holidays drop.

But there is Christmas hope, Lewis says.

"The best approach for any of us to take to make it through what often feels like a marathon between Thanksgiving and Christmas is to remain focused on what the season really means to you individually, and to continually assess if what you are doing and giving is consistent with what you hope to achieve," she said.

For those who want to focus more on family, she says spend time with them instead of shopping for them. For those in excess, Lewis says finding a creative way to help those in need may be a rewarding alternative this year.

The secret is finding a balance, Lewis said.

"The more centered that you can remain, the more peace and comfort you will have to give to others, and that is what the season is all about," she said.

What are your tips to get out of the holiday slump?

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