“It just sounds so silly to someone who hasn’t been through it,” said the 48-year-old Burgess, who lives in Heflin. “But right as I pulled in, this old Christmas carol started playing on the radio, and I just lost it. I probably sat there for 20 minutes just sobbing.”
Burgess’ husband, Donald, had died suddenly eight months earlier. All year, she’d been dreading that first Christmas without him.
With their only son married and raising a child of his own in Texas, Burgess felt “terribly” alone. She had plenty of friends willing to listen, but she didn’t want to burden them with her feelings.
“It goes against everything you’re supposed to feel,” she said. “How can you get depressed on Christmas when all you ever see is people talking about how wonderful and special and exciting it is? Only I didn’t feel wonderful. I wanted to hide in my dark house and not come out until after New Year’s.”
Instead, Burgess pretended to be happy, trying to force her way through holidays without letting anyone know how much she was hurting. Those pressures eventually became too much, and she wound up crying in a busy parking lot surrounded by Christmas shoppers.
“I just felt so alone,” she said. “I knew it wouldn’t last, but right then it was something that made me feel … trapped.”
Like so many, Burgess was dealing with the occasionally intense feeling of sadness that is commonly known as “the holiday blues.” It can be caused by the very things that are inescapable during the Christmas season, including stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations, financial strain, the loss of a loved one and inability to be with family and friends.
The demands of shopping, parties, family reunions and house guests can contribute to feelings of tension. People may also develop other stress responses such as headaches, excessive drinking, over-eating and difficulty sleeping.
Environment can also play a role. Studies have shown that some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which results from being exposed to fewer hours of sunlight as the days grow shorter during the winter months.
“I made things worse,” Burgess said, “by pretending nothing was wrong.”
Right before Christmas, at the urging of a close friend, Burgess finally found comfort. She went back to church, attending services at Parker Memorial Baptist Church in Anniston.
“I felt like that helped me put things right,” Burgess said. “Once I was right with God, I could get things right with myself.”
As pastor of Heflin First Baptist Church, Philip Morris understands the stresses and strains people feel year-round, but especially during the holiday season. It’s something he’s faced personally within his own family, as his daughter’s husband died unexpectedly four years ago, leaving behind a 4-year-old son. Dec. 18 is Morris’ son-in-law’s birthday, and Dec. 27 is his anniversary.
“The first one was particularly difficult on everyone, and of course it continues to be,” Morris said. “Christmastime makes us all nostalgic, and some of those memories are for people who aren’t with us anymore.”
While those suffering from true, debilitating depression should seek professional help, there is a sense of calm and community that can be found in church — not only during Christmas but all year, Morris said.
“What we’re offering is hope in the promise that comes from the birth of Christ, and that message doesn’t change,” he said. “We have to see that there is more to life than what’s right here, right now.”
The church can have numerous roles in terms of helping people dealing with holiday blues, explained Michael Cox, pastor of Cornerstone Worship Center in Anniston. It starts with identifying the person and the problem.
“It’s not too hard in a small church, yet much harder in larger churches,” Cox said. “We use our small groups to help us with this. In a small group you can know and be known. Then, the group leaders let others know about potential problems, and the church as a whole can get involved and help out.”
Congregations can also have engaging moments at church, usually through praise and worship, Cox said.
“This does wonders emotionally,” he said. “God is real, and when people connect to him in a real way, it changes them from the inside out. When people get connected to God in a personal way... problems become much smaller.”
It’s also important to avoid getting too caught up in the stress and strain of the holidays. Rather, find solace in the true meaning of Christmas, Morris said.
“If you focus on what Christmas really means, it can help you push through a lot of that depression,” he said.
This year, Anna Burgess hasn’t cried once — at least not in sorrow. She still misses her husband, but has found comfort in friends and family. She attends church regularly at a couple of local congregations, and that has given her strength to not only endure but enjoy all that Christmas has to offer.
“I don’t have to pretend that I’m happy,” she said. “I still get a little sad, but I’ve got a lot to look forward to, and that’s what I focus on.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.
Symptoms of depression
The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that you seek professional help if you experience five or more of these symptoms every day for two weeks:
• Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
• Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
• Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
• Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
• Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
• Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
• Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
• Restlessness, irritability
• Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
Coping with stress and depression during the holidays
• Keep expectations for the holiday season manageable. Try to set realistic goals for yourself. Pace yourself. Organize your time. Make a list and prioritize the important activities.
• Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Don’t put the entire focus on just one day (i.e., Christmas Day). Remember that it’s a season of holiday sentiment and activities can be spread out to lessen stress and increase enjoyment.
• Remember the holiday season does not banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely; there is room for these feelings to be present, even if the person chooses not to express them.
• Leave “yesteryear” in the past and look toward the future. Life brings changes. Each season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. Don’t set yourself up in comparing today with the “good ol’ days.”
• Do something for someone else. Try volunteering some of your time to help others.
• Enjoy activities that are free, such as taking a drive to look at holiday decorations, going window shopping or making cookies with children.
• Be aware that excessive drinking will only increase your feelings of depression.
• Try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a new way.
• Spend time with supportive and caring people. Reach out and make new friends, or contact someone you haven’t heard from in a while.
• Save time for yourself. Recharge your batteries. Let others share in the responsibility of planning activities.
— SOURCE: Mental Health America