When the days aren't merry and bright

Tampa church offers tips to help ease stress and sadness

It’s supposed to be the season for comfort and joy, but for many, the stress of the holidays can be enormous.

“We all get so busy cooking, buying gifts, attending too many events,” says Rev. Sally Campbell-Evans, congregational care pastor at Hyde Park UMC, Tampa. “You feel like you have to do it all this time of year. It’s overwhelming instead of being a joyful time of year.”

Then exacerbate that by such traumatic events as a job loss or death of a loved one, and the stress can feel like it’s too much to bear.

“Life might not look quite as good as it does in a TV commercial,” Campbell-Evans says.  “In reality, we’re all walking around with some wounds.”

Recognizing the challenges the holidays may pose, Hyde Park UMC held a workshop last week titled “Healthier, Happier Holidays: Managing the Stress of the Holiday Season.” Hyde Park member Erica Clark, a Tampa psychologist, led the discussion.

It’s the second year the church has offered a workshop tied to holiday stress and emotion. Following deaths in the church family last year, Hyde Park held a session, “Depression, the Unwelcome Holiday Guest,” and followed it up with a depression support group, Campbell-Evans says.

Psychologist Erica Clark and Rev. Sally Campbell-Evans leading a stress workshop
Erica Clark, left, at the podium, and Rev. Sally Campbell-Evans lead a workshop on coping with stress and depression during the holidays at Hyde Park UMC, Tampa. Photo by Susan Ladika.

This year, about 30 people turned out to listen to Clark offer strategies for tackling holiday stress, along with coping with such things as grief, loss and depression.

It’s a time of year when “expectations are high but they aren’t reachable,” Clark says, and people are beset by the “tyranny of ‘shoulds’ ” – everything should be joyful; people should be happy; they shouldn’t be sad.

Instead of expecting perfection, it’s important to set realistic expectations for yourself and others, she adds. It’s a way to avoid becoming hypercritical of yourself and the ones you love. 

Social media can make things seem worse, as people see posts that appear to show the picture-perfect lives of friends and family members. “They’re not showing the kid having a tantrum in the corner,” Clark says.

She adds that it’s also important to identify top priorities for the holiday season. By being more selective and doing less, people may enjoy the season more.

“Just because you did something before doesn’t mean you need to do it again,” Clark says.

During the holiday season, people also need to make time to nurture themselves, she says – from eating right and getting enough rest, to taking time to exercise.

It can be particularly tough when dealing with loss of a loved one or going through a major life transition. 

That rang a chord with Hyde Park UMC member Tammy Young. She spent 3 ½ years caring for her ailing mother, who died earlier this year.

“It’s been a significant year of change for me,” Young says. “The [workshop] messages were perfect. I hadn’t had a lot of time to care for me.”

Another way for churches to offer comfort to those struggling with dark times during the holiday season is to host a Blue Christmas or Longest Night service. Click here for related resources from United Methodist Discipleship Ministries.

At such times, people need to give themselves permission to grieve over the loss and be willing to turn to others for support as needed, Clark says.

If a loved one has died, the family might still put up his or her favorite Christmas decoration, light a candle of remembrance or take time to share memories of that person with friends and relatives.

If you feel down, Clark says, you may be combating a case of the holiday blues. But you may be battling depression if you’re feeling prolonged sadness, hopelessness or irritability; or you lose interest in activities; or you consider harming yourself. If that’s the case, it’s particularly important to turn to others for support.

“Engage in self-care. Connect with others and avoid isolation,” Clark says. 

Emotions often intensify around the holidays. “This season of the year tends to bring it to the surface a little bit more,” Campbell-Evans says. “The more open we can be, the healthier we can be.”

She wants Hyde Park UMC to “be a place for people to be honest and open about their need for help.” 

To encourage that, the church is planning a series of “Toolbox of Care” workshops for the new year. Topics are still being determined but might focus on such issues as relationships, life transitions, coping with trauma and burnout. 

Young welcomes the idea.

“I love the fact we have this type of program to support our spiritual, physical and emotional well-being.”

– Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa.

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