Beating Post Holiday Blues

By: Alexandra DeWoskin, LCSW

The holidays have come and gone and a new year has begun. Many people greet the new year with excitement.  But, there are some who find themselves struggling with post-holiday blues. This is understandable: the holiday season is a time of family gatherings and festive parties, which all comes to an abrupt halt January 1.

We are left to deal with fatigue, going back to work, taking down our cheerful decorations, and possibly financial stress from paying for all those gifts. Additionally, the long, cold, dark days of winter, can lead some people to experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is believed to be caused by lack of sunlight and has symptoms very similar to post-holiday blues, only more pronounced.

There are many reasons people get sad after the holidays.  In many cases, post-holiday depression actually starts during the holidays with its jam-packed days and nights of cooking, shopping, overindulging, and socializing. During the holidays, normal routines go by the wayside. You might have eaten badly and drank too much and feel guilty. You may have neglected healthy routines like exercise.

Maybe you did a lot for others leaving you feeling depleted or drained. Perhaps you’re disappointed by the holidays. They weren’t what you had hoped for or expectations weren’t met.  Spending time with family can leave us with mixed feelings. Sometimes we feel let down by our interactions with family members and disappointed.

Other times, we might experience tremendous joy from being with family then miss them when we part.

A change in social calendar with a sudden lack of social events can lead to loneliness, boredom and a feeling of isolation. If you traveled or moved around a lot during the holidays, you may be tired from all that.  Fatigue can cause us to feel run down and bring on sadness.   Holidays tend to bring up memories of those who are no longer with us or those with whom we no longer have a relationship.

how do i live in the moment

People tend to hibernate in the dark, cold winter months – particularly in Chicago. Some may feel stuck at home.  After all that time off, we are now back to work every day and returning back to a regular routine can be difficult.

The symptoms of the post-holiday blues period are similar to those of “regular” depression – headaches, fatigue, insomnia and trouble sleeping, anxiety, agitation, irritability, mood swings, change in appetite, weight loss or gain, inability to concentrate, increased desire to be alone, and loss of interest in things you usually enjoy.

Some people are at greater risk for post-holiday depression if they have a tendency towards depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Or if you’ve recently experienced a major life stressor such as an illness or the loss or separation of a loved one, you might be more prone to depression.

But even happy life changes such as marriage, a new baby, or retirement are stressful in their own ways and the holidays can amplify normal feelings of depression, stress, or anxiety.

If you are struggling with the post-holiday blues, here are some ways to improve your mood quickly by taking a pro-active approach to the New Year.

  • Reflect on the good times you had over the holidays. Spend some time to remember the enjoyable things that happened during the holiday season to help you focus more on the blessings you have in your life. Give thanks and keep gratitude journal. Expressing gratitude creates a surge of feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
  • Get some rest: things always look bleaker when you are tired. Take some time to relax and do something just for yourself: read the book you’ve been wanting to finish, watch a movie or two, or indulge in some “me time.” These can all give you a brighter perspective.
  • Start a hobby or pick up one that you’ve enjoyed in the past. Activities you delight in will help take the focus off the end of the holiday season.Start or continue your exercise routine. Think about doing your exercise with someone else a couple of times during the week to have company and someone to look forward to being with. Even moderate, gentle exercise like walking or yoga raises the level of neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, dopamine, norepinephrine.Don’t beat yourself up if you gained weight.  It doesn’t mean you’re weak, worthless or irresponsible.  It’s never too late to get back on track with your eating plan.Return to a regular sleep schedule.Get more light. Take Vitamin D which is associated with mood and is often at a deficit during dark winter months.  Certainly, if your depression is more related to the dark days of winter, photo-therapy can help immensely. Seasonal affective disorder generally responds well to light therapy, in which people are regularly exposed to bright light. In particular, fluorescent lights have been shown to significantly improve depression. People with SAD can purchase “light boxes” which are used for approximately 30 minutes daily in the morning and evening.If there were people you spent time with during the holidays that you really enjoyed and you don’t often see them, make a plan with them.  Stay connected.
  • Start to plan your next vacation or what you’ll do on your next long holiday weekend to have things to look forward to. Go to the movies, theater, or museums.  Make plans with friends.  Even something as simple as planning a dinner with friends can help refocus thoughts away from the holidays.
  • Volunteer: if you are lonely and missing those gatherings with family and friends, this can be a great way to get out and be around people.
  • Set realistic New Year’s resolutions. Don’t aim so high that your goals are unattainable or you may end up disappointed in yourself for breaking them. Be kind to and patient with yourself with respect to any New Year’s Resolutions. They often come with a lot of pressure.
  • Choose that attitude to enjoy and look forward to the year and coming months: plan some of the things you’d like to do this year, make a list of things you’d like to accomplish, stop looking backwards at the past. Put your goals for the year down in writing so you’ll be more likely to make them happen.

Post-holiday depression is a situational rather than chronic form of depression. It generally goes away with time, but there is no reason to just ride it out. You can speed up the process by taking active steps to improve your mood.

Take care of your health and follow a few diet guidelines, do regular moderate exercise, and get adequate light exposure.  In addition, doing hobbies, planning fun events, expressing gratitude, actively working on your mental attitude, and meditation can speed your return to a healthy mood. In general, depression related to the holidays is short-lived, lasting just a few weeks into the new year.

For some people, however, it can be long-lasting and overwhelming: in these cases, counseling and support groups can help immensely.  Happy New Year!


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