Curing the Christmas Blues

15 12 2018

IMG_20181216_081000197The holidays can be the toughest time of year. Especially if you’re alone.

As I write this, my wife is out of town helping a friend through surgery. My daughter is taking off on a train trip with her friends. And my son is an ocean away at university. Being alone at Christmas can make you long for the days of bickering over which Christmas movie to watch, awkward political conversations with the in-laws, and fighting both weather and traffic to visit grandma’s house.

No wonder people struggle with depression at Christmas. Being with extended family is stressful. Being without family feels extra-lonely at Christmas.

Before all the vibrant reds and greens drift into forgettable grays or those depressing blues, here are two ways to save Christmas:

  • Do something you like

In C.S. Lewis’s novel The Screwtape Letters, an older demon guides a younger demon in how to ruin a person’s life. In Chapter 13, he warns the demon to keep the human from reading a book he enjoys, or taking a walk out in nature that he loves. These simple pleasures come from God, and make the human feel “that he was coming home, recovering himself.”

Unacceptable, the older demon warns. “All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say…’I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither  what I ought nor what I liked.’”

The demon continues: “Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years [or a holiday!] not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.”

This Christmas, make it a point to do something you like—read a novel, take a walk, bake Christmas cookies for someone, decorate a Christmas tree just for yourself—there are a million pleasures God has given us that can bring joy to our world.

  • Engage with the human race

In the Ted Talk “How to Make Stress your Friend” by Kelly McGonigal, I learned that the neural-hormone oxytocin is released when we’re under stress; however, it’s also released when we hug someone. Kelly’s conclusion is that “when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. . . Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family, it enhances your empathy, it even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about. . . So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience—and that mechanism is human connection.”

Whether it’s the stress of traffic, shopping, and annoying relatives, or the stress of loneliness, our human tendency to run from the pain and isolate ourselves actually makes things worse. We need people—if not someone who cares for us, at least someone to care for.

So my second piece of advice for curing the Christmas Blues is to connect with someone you love, even if it has to be by Skype or phone; and reach out to someone who needs to be loved. Babysit someone’s kids, serve Christmas dinner at a shelter, ask in your local retirement home who is unlikely to have family visit, and listen to their stories for an hour. Or check which university students near you can’t make it home for the holidays (like my son!) and invite them for dinner. You won’t just be a blessing to them—you’ll discover a stress resilience inside yourself that leads to joy.

As C.S. Lewis reminds us, wasting our holidays on “nothing” would be a shame. Joy comes when we stay active doing things we enjoy, and when we give and receive love.

Merry Christmas!