The holiday season seems to act like an emotional amplifier. 

If everything is going great, the holiday activities seem to make you feel even better.  If your business is doing well, the sales before Christmas might put your ledger in the black.  If you get along with the in-laws and, more importantly, your spouse, family gatherings can give you that wonderful, warm feeling inside.  If life is good, the holiday lights, the music, and the parties and carols will likely amplify the joy.

But, if you’ve just experienced a major loss, like the death of a loved one, the closing of your business, or a divorce, then such festivities could make you feel a lot worse.

When I was in the pastor business, a lot of people told me they did quite a bit of pretending when opening presents or greeting people on the streets, during this time of the year.

“Merry Christmas!” a friend might exclaim as she gives you a big hug. And you might respond with as much enthusiasm as you can muster: “And merry Christmas to you.”  But your heart won’t be in it because it’s broken and still healing from whatever loss it is you might be recovering from.  And by three in the afternoon you’re worn out from all the pretending you felt you had to do.

So, if you’re in a good place right now, I’m happy for you.  You can look forward to Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or whatever occasion you celebrate. But, I’d caution those who appear to have everything made: too much of anything, even a good thing, can, sometimes, be a bad thing.

A mellow evening could take a turn for the worse if too much drinking is involved and police have to be called to, say, break up a fight.  Too much spending during the holidays could lead to a financial hangover in January. Too many activities on the calendar can turn “sleep in a heavenly peace” into “tossin’ and turnin’ all night.”

And, if you’re feeling crappy and you dread the approach of the holidays, try to find a way to be OK with that.  It’s hard enough to be mourning the loss of someone or something that was important to you, but it’s even worse to feel bad about feeling bad.

A lot of it has to do with expectations.  Even folks who are relatively happy can get depleted by trying to do too much. So, if you’re feeling down this December, trying to celebrate the way you always used to can diminish your already small emotional reserves even more.  Try to let go of having a Merry, Merry Christmas and settle for getting through the holidays with your sanity intact.

I recently received a mailer from the Mayo Clinic that lists what I think is some pretty good advice for “handling holiday stress.” I’ve listed some of the tips below. 

Take a break.  When the season begins to feel like too much, take time for yourself and unwind.

Connect with others.  Relationships are more important than presents.

Maintain perspective.  Ask yourself whether the issue you’re upset about is really as important as it seems.

Stay active.  Get over to the YMCA or the health club, and work out a few times.  Some forms of depression respond as well to physical exercise as to medication.

Make a budget.  Set a spending limit and stick to it.

Say no.  You don’t have to attend every party or volunteer at every event.

Be realistic.  Life isn’t a greeting card.  Neither is it usually a Norman Rockwell painting.  Check your expectations and make sure they don’t include magical experiences or vast changes in the people around you.

Take time for spirituality.  Note that this is the Mayo Clinic talking here and not a pastor. It is, after all, how the holidays got started in the first place.

Turning the emotional amplifier down a few notches might help make the holidays more peaceful and renewing.  And it might enable you to wake up on New Year’s Day with a smile instead of a headache.