Are you having a Charlie Brown Christmas? 

Charlie Brown felt so depressed. "I just don’t understand Christmas. Instead of feeling happy, I feel sort of let down."
"A Charlie Brown Christmas," 1965

This year as I watched the Charlie Brown Christmas special for the umpteenth time, I found myself suspecting that he was experiencing a "Charlie Browniest Christmas" or a case of the "Holiday Blues." As the show proceeded he revealed his feelings about Christmas, "I think there’s something wrong with me. I just don’t understand Christmas. I like getting presents, sending cards, decorating tress and all that. But I always end up feeling sad." Listening to these comments I became even more sure of my diagnosis. I found it strange that even though I have watched the program nearly every holiday, until this year I had never noticed how blue about the holiday Charlie Brown really was.

The Holiday Blues - Why am I feeling like Charlie Brown?

People often have different experiences of the holidays. For many, it is a time of joy, happiness, peace on earth, good will, celebrating with family and friends, and hope for the future. But for others, the holiday season can be a difficult time, a time of sadness and loneliness, a time of self evaluation and reflecting on past accomplishments and failures, and a time of anxiety about the future year. During this time of year there is a high potential for psychological, physical and financial stress. As a result, the holidays can leave millions of people feeling blue, not happy or merry. The holiday blues can affect men and women of all ages with intense and unsettling feelings ranging from mild sadness to severe clinical depression. Based on his description of how he is feeling, Charlie Brown appears to have a classic case of the Holiday Blues.

The holiday season can also be especially difficult for those who have lost a loved one and are facing the first or the umpteenth season without them. For those who have experienced a significant loss or change during the year, it is normal to feel subdued, reflective and blue like Charlie Brown "I don’t understand Christmas.…Instead of feeling happy, I feel sort of let down." Laughter and happiness are perceived as sentiments for others, not for someone grieving a loss. The joyful public celebrations and media portrayal of the "perfect" holiday can be painful reminders of what the grieving person is missing. Memories of holiday season's past will invariably surface, or thoughts of a season that will never be; these remembrances and reflections can trigger an episode of the blues. It is normal for the holidays to exaggerate feelings of stress, sadness and loneliness.

Other factors can contribute to the stress, loneliness, and sadness experienced during the holidays. Those separated from loved ones by circumstances, distance or death can find this season to be an intensely painful time, one that further reminds them of how much they are alone. The increased demands of shopping, parties, family reunions, and house guests leave many feeling overwhelmed by their holiday obligations. The over commercialization of the Holidays by retailers makes one begin to believe this time of year is synonymous with "buying" and "spending" and no longer about "caring" and "sharing." The spirit of the season seems to have been lost in a corporate take-over, or fired in a managerial down-sizing. Financial hardships during a slowing economy, a time of rising unemployment and the multitude of end-of-the-year layoffs may severely limit what people can spend this year. Add to this the idealistic plans of trying to create the perfect "Martha Stewart Holiday," unrealistic expectations may be raised which may be impossible to meet.

The Blues During Medical School and Training: A Personal Experience

For many of the years during my medical training—medical school and residency—I would find myself slipping into the holiday blues before Thanksgiving emerging sometime after Valentine's Day. I also have a birthday over the holiday season near New Year’s Eve, so both of these occasions served as a time of self reflection. I would spend these days looking back on the year that was and where I was in my life—personally, professionally, and economically. I did not meet my husband until after I completed my residency training, so I spent holidays during medical school and residency as a single person. Adding to my world of being alone were the seemingly endless reminders from Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day by advertisers—the images of happy couples and happy families having the perfect holiday. These constant media reminders only made things worse underscoring that my personal life was nonexistent. I believed the holidays were for children and for those in love. Not being either made it an extremely difficult time. Professionally, I found there was often little to look forward to during this season. In the midst of medical training the end is often no where in sight and there are no guarantees of finishing. Additionally as with so many other interns and residents, being the low people in the medical residency hierarchy, I was often scheduled to work on the weekends and holidays. Surprisingly for me, I discovered that working was better than being home pining for a person that did not exist in my life, being away from family and friends, and feeling quite lonely. Economically the holidays during my education and training years were hard. The resources didn’t exist to do something fun, even if I’d had the time off and the energy with which to do so. I felt like Charlie Brown, thinking there was something wrong with me for feeling sad at Christmas. "Good Grief! I’m having a Charlie Brown Xmas."

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