By the time Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, many in America are already struggling with something known as holiday depression. But why does this occur? And how can we either prevent or appropriately deal with it?
There are a number of causes suggested by medical science for holiday depression, but I would propose that many of these have spiritual counterparts (as well as remedies). After all, the ultimate purpose of asceticism is the healing of both soul and body. Salvation—which is a journey or process—is equally a matter of both physical and mental well-being as it is of spiritual transformation.
For example, one of the reasons people fall into depression during this time of year is that their personal “liturgy” is disrupted.
All of life is liturgical, and we all have routines. But during the holiday season, we are interrupted in a number of ways: holiday parties, extra cooking or baking, a disjointed work schedule, decorating, and even vacation or time away from the office can lead to a mental—and spiritual—breakdown, as our normal day-to-day “flow” is disrupted. These disruptions will no doubt lead to a reduction in sleep, as well.
When our lives are disturbed, the evil one will use this as a time to take advantage of our weaknesses. If not prepared, a person is all the more likely to succumb to his attacks. The remedy is to spiritually prepare for this disruption in your life “cycle.” Recognize it, be ready to adapt to it, and spend additional time in prayer as a way to overcome it.
Another major cause of holiday depression is the annual mourning it can bring.
Since the holiday season is often a time spent with extended family, there’s an increased likelihood that the absence of a loved one (whether from death, divorce, or distance) will be more pronounced—and more so at this time of year than at any other. Again, the only help through this is to both recognize and prepare to deal with it. Burying our heads in the sand will not help, and ignoring pain will only make it worse. By admitting to the pain when it comes, we can learn to pray and work through it.
One suggestion would be to set aside time during the holiday season (perhaps regularly) to say an akathist or set of prayers for a departed loved one; rather than ignoring their absence or the pain it brings, spend this time praying for their eternal rest, while also remembering the love or joy they brought into your life. If you have gone through the pain of divorce, or if you simply miss a child or other family member who is no longer able to join in your regular holiday festivities, make a point to pray for them.
Be content with missing someone, or with feeling the pain that you feel, but then transform it:
So in every test, let us say: ‘Thank you, my God, because this was needed for my salvation.’ —Elder Paisios of Mount Athos
And really, what I’ve mentioned so far only scratches the surface of causes for holiday depression.
For example, there is less daylight, and we often get less exercise, leading many into even more stress and depression.
There is also stress over preparations or expectations that don’t transpire exactly as hoped (a fumbled decoration, the wrong gift, a ruined sweater).
Ultimately, we must remember that such expectations are only pre-meditated resentments. Instead of over-loading with ambitions, plans, or expectations one cannot possibly fulfill (especially with less daylight, less energy, and less free time), be reasonable and don’t over-commit. If you set aside time for anything, let it be for prayer.
In the end, the only way to avoid holiday depression—or to rightly deal with it when it comes—is to redirect our focus towards God. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the “trinity” of spiritual medicine, as given to us by the Great Physician himself, and we can all use an extra “dose” of such medicine during the holiday season.
It is certainly advantageous that the Church sets aside a period of fasting before Christmas, but we must make proper use of this time; fasting from food alone is not nearly enough. In fact, fasting can often open us up for even more temptation than normal. As a result, one must also fast from the temptations that lead to despair, replacing the food in our bellies with prayer in our hearts. By denying ourselves and giving to others, we redirect the purpose of this season from within to without—and as a result, we can draw closer to God.
While you might not be able to avoid depression or anxiety during the holiday season, it never hurts to at least be willing to recognize it when it comes. If we are both able and willing to recognize its arrival, we can begin to work past it. And the only guaranteed way to do so is through the spiritual medicine of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
By following these exhortations of the Lord, we can more readily prepare for his Advent, making it a season of joy and fulfillment, instead of anxiety and depression.