So here we are again! That wonderful time of year when family gathers and we’re all filled with joy and looking forward to spending time with in-laws. Some will read sarcasm in that sentence, others won’t. In true psychological style, I’ll let you take what you from your own reading, but the message is this: we have expectations about what this time of year will mean.
For some, however, this time of year is genuinely very sad and that it’s correlated with high suicide rates. The problem is, although this idea is well-known, it isn’t a fact at all.
To be clear, the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics tells us that “the rate of suicide in the U.S. is in fact lowest in December, and peaks in the spring and fall.”
A Danish study found that Christmas time even had a protective effect on suicide rates.
What does happen, however, is that the media perpetuates this myth by reporting this old wives’ tale more as the holiday season approaches, even though this myth has been de-bunked in both private– and public-funded research.
However, we can understand where this myth comes from as the holiday season is certainly correlated with high levels of stress, anxiety and tendencies toward loneliness or social isolation. It can also be a big test for a new relationship, where the extended family is met for the first time and a person is either judged on how they interact with the extended family, or, one feels they are being judged on how they interact with the extended family.
It has been suggested that it’s the higher break-up rates and the results of this highly stressful period that leads to higher suicide rates in January (which actually is true). Of course, it could also be contemplating having to go back to work for another year, or for those who are more sentimental, that fact that they won’t see their extended family again for another year.
So at best, you’re happy about this time of year and a little worried that it’s not going to be perfect. But at worst, you’re stressed out of your mind or very depressed about the whole thing.
The good news is that there are ways to help, whether family gatherings are a must, or, you don’t have anyone to spend your time with. Personally, I’m going to be drinking a bit more than usual as I find it helps with just about any situation. Seriously though, there are other ways than slowly pickling oneself in sherry, eggnog and liquor chocolates that you might consider “healthier” options.
One of these is to drop your expectations. Now this isn’t one of the usual remedies I would provide, and that’s because I’m only talking about dropping a certain type of expectation: what others will provide for you. What I’m not talking about here is not having wonderful hopes for the holiday season. Just don’t assume others are going to make it happen for you.
So the first step here is to be honest with yourself about what you actually expect. Do you expect someone to cater? To be the life of the party? To give you an awesome present? To make the atmosphere relaxed? If you’re not aware of what it is that you actually expect, then managing those expectations is going to be tough.
So then, if you expect others to make your holiday season fun or meaningful, you’re bound to be in for some disappointment. Someone might get sick, might be sad, might be tired or just tired of fulfilling a certain role. Now, if you can come into the situation with a hope that it’s going to be great, and with minimal expectations about how it’s going to be provided for you, then you’ve laid some good foundations.
This leads to the second way we can make the holiday period less stressful: be open about what it means to enjoy it. Maybe your favorite yams aren’t going to be there. Maybe Uncle Nick will get a bit too drunk or Auntie Jennifer will rope you into an hour of small talk. Does it have to be the end of the world or can you take something sentimental from it?
Sure, it might not be that ideal gathering, but then hopefully you can recognize that the perfect gathering is never going to happen. Life’s too varied and people are too unpredictable. As a recent movie teaches us (that I swear I saw with my 8 year old nephew): let it go.
So what if none of this is your issue? What if reading this actually depresses you because you couldn’t even fathom this time of year being filled with happy people and caring family?
Then lowering your expectations and having an open mind about what will constitute a good time isn’t really going to help you. And this is really hard, because if you’re sure that you’re not going to have a very good time this holiday season, I’m sure you’ll find a way to make that happen.
So then, what? I’d ask you to resist your tendency to do less. Do more instead. Accept a person’s offer to go to dinner. Even if you know they’re just asking out of pity. Go to that dinner. Even if you think it’ll be the most boring or socially awkward thing in the world. I’m not saying you have to be the life of the party, but just go. It’s all too easy to withdraw and isolate because you feel like that’s the best course of action, but the odds are, doing that won’t make you feel better. Especially if you’re already depressed.
And if you absolutely have to be alone, still do more than you want to do. Buy decorations. Buy food. Set a nice table. Call someone. Write a list of what you’re thankful for or some new year’s resolutions. Start a new tradition that engages something positive.
You see, it doesn’t matter if doing any or all of these things actually makes you sadder or more anxious, whether you have company of not. What matters is that you engage with something: a family, a situation, a tradition, an idea. Rather than having an idealized version of the holiday season in your head, take it as it comes and engage with what is in your life.