People who experience increased anxiety or depression during the holidays can find effective ways to cope.
Story: James Combs // Theresa Campbell
It’s not always the most wonderful time of the year.
Just ask Maile DeLand, of Lady Lake, and Vanessa Vazquez, of Mascotte.
Maile has spent the past 20 years grieving during Christmas. In January 1998, her stepfather, James Kirby, shot and killed her mother, Kathy Kirby, before taking his own life. Maile, who at the time was a senior at Leesburg High School, discovered their lifeless bodies after hearing four gunshots.
“I sometimes dread the holidays,” Maile says. “They say time heals pain, but sometimes time makes it worse because it’s another year without a person in your life whom you loved dearly.”
For Vanessa, a high school teacher and mother of three boys, Christmas is a stressful time due to social demands, changes in normal routines, and financial hardships.
“I could very easily fill the entire months of November and December with a million wonderful activities, but that causes me stress, costs money, and will leave everyone disgruntled because I’m a mess,” Vanessa says.
The holidays are a time when lights twinkle from rooftops and trees, children invade shopping malls to reveal their wish lists to Santa, and homes are filled with laughter and joy. For Maile, Vanessa, and countless others, however, the holiday season brings unwanted guests—sadness or heightened depression. That is especially true for anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one, divorce, family conflict, loneliness, mental health issues, or a dizzying array of demands.
“It’s doubtful that people become depressed beginning around Thanksgiving and then magically snap out of it when the holidays end on January 2,” says Dr. Chrisann Reid, a licensed psychotherapist with Lake County-based Central Florida Counseling and Psychological Services. “If they’re depressed during the holidays, then they likely have chronic depression that ebbs and flows throughout the year. However, the holidays can bring it on more intensely. I think most people who are sad only around Christmastime have what I call ‘the holiday blues.’”
A variety of factors can lead to increased depression and the holiday blues, but with effective coping mechanisms, people do not have to spend the holidays in a state of sadness or despair.
Just say no
Having a busy social calendar is one reason why people are in a not-so-jolly mood around Christmastime.
“It is OK to say no,” Chrisann says. “Make a list and determine what it is you really want to do. You definitely may want to attend the company Christmas party, but you don’t want to attend your neighbor’s party. You prioritize. Also, don’t feel pressured to host a Christmas party if you don’t have time. Identify what you can do and what you can’t do and live with that decision.”
Vanessa finds that scheduling dates with her husband, planning rest periods, and spending time alone help her cope with the high expectations of Christmas. She also does Christmas shopping online.
“Those are big sanity savers. If I go, go, go, I will get mentally burned out and I will be useless to everyone,” she says. “One of my triggers for anxiety is exhaustion. When I am tired, I am much more at risk of having panic attacks, so I have to make sure I am sleeping well and letting my mind rest.”
Coping with the loss of a loved one
That first holiday season after experiencing the death of a loved one can be an emotionally trying time. All the festivities stir up precious memories, and grievers are expected to be jolly and full of holiday spirit even though they are still coping with loss.
Twenty years later, Maile finds that sadness and grief remain constant companions around the holiday season. However, she has discovered ways to lessen the pain. That includes giving herself permission to grieve and cry and letting her husband and two children know when she needs extra support or alone time for reflection.
“During the holidays, I’ll tell my husband that I need to go for a drive by myself or spend 20 minutes alone in the bathroom. That helps me pick myself up and keep going,” Maile says.
Another way to deal with loss during the holidays, experts say, is celebrating the life of those who are gone instead of mourning their death.
“What I recommend is creating some ritual to honor that person,” says W. Steven Saunders, a licensed psychologist and owner of Central Florida Psychological Consultants in Clermont. “Honor their presence and honor a tradition they would bring to Christmas. My paternal grandfather was famous for his long-winded prayers before our Christmas dinner. He was a World War II veteran who ended his prayer by blessing our troops overseas. One thing we’d do to honor him is make a donation to veterans’ groups. Doing this kept that part of him alive, which was important to us as a family. It helped us cherish the memories of him in a very positive way.”
Seek professional help
Sometimes, anxiety can become unbearable around Christmastime.
“Now is their big Christmas meal and they start having triggers from the past when their was trauma, violence, anxiety—things that were bad experiences with their family before—and they may have tucked it away all year long,” says Sandi Burchfield, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Family Life Counseling Center in Groveland.
Fortunately, counseling can be more therapeutic than medication.
“Oftentimes, people are dealing with issues they do not feel comfortable talking about around family or friends,” Chrisann says. “When clients come to me for counseling, they can talk with an objective person who does not judge them. When you’re depressed at home and see the glass as half empty, it’s hard to get out of that mindset. A therapist can help change that mindset so you’re seeing the glass as half full. More importantly, everything my clients say is confidential, so they have an opportunity to get everything off their chest.”