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Why Do I Feel Sad After the Holidays?

Let’s Talk About It

January 25, 2024

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Photography by Alba Vitta/Stocksy United

Photography by Alba Vitta/Stocksy United

by Hannah Shewan Stevens

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Medically Reviewed by:

Kendra Kubala, PsyD

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by Hannah Shewan Stevens

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Kendra Kubala, PsyD

•••••

•••••

You might be feeling down in the new year for a number of reasons. It’s helpful to identify what’s affecting you so that you can find some ways to cope.

The holidays can bring a flurry of excitement, family reunions, and reflection on the year behind us as the next one unfolds.

Once we all retreat to our homes, normal life looms as the fairy lights go out one by one.

There’s a long, dark winter ahead, likely to be defined by society’s obsession with rabid self-improvement to set the perfect tone for the new 2024 you.

This infuriatingly consistent annual trend can contribute to the post-holiday blues and a variety of other emotional changes.

No, we don’t have a magical cure for depression yet, but we can strive to prevent the symptoms from taking the lead this year.

We will find solutions that soothe, new habits that stick and others that don’t, engage in conversations that empower us to thrive, and forgive ourselves when we don’t magically transform into the most divine version of ourselves when the calendar says we should.

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But why is this even happening?

Research has disproven the age-old myth that holidays trigger an end-of-year suicide spike. However, there’s an undeniable correlation between this time of year and mood changes.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that 64% of Americans with mental illness report that holidays make their conditions worse, and this year’s cost-of-living crisis will likely contribute. A recent survey by Ramsey Solutions revealed that 51% of Americans struggled to pay their bills in the last 3 months.

Money isn’t the only reason your depression might be gaining traction this time of year.

“There’s a lot of build-up and dopamine with the holidays, looking forward to gatherings, getting gifts, and people (generally) being in a good and giving mood,” says Florida-based burnout recovery coach Gabrielle Juliano-Villani, LCSW. “Once the holidays are over, it can feel like there is nothing left to look forward to.”

Another contributing factor can be the emotional exhaustion we experience being back with our families.

Holidaying with family members or in homes that hold traumatic memories threatens to leave us in a state of reversion, where we become trapped by our teenage or childhood selves again. Their triggers become ours again, and we may struggle to assimilate back into real life after being forced to perform the you everyone from home knows.

“The holidays set us up for repetition compulsion,” says London-based psychotherapist and writer Charlotte Fox Weber. “Let’s say your mother failed you, and you feel you failed her. The holidays can be a time when you try yet again to get a different outcome, and then the outcome is the same, and it’s deflating.

With a new year of trials and tribulations to confront, the emotionally exhausted state we often start January in can feel too heavy to pick up and keep carrying on.

Even if a holiday passes joyously, for some of us, the emotional drop we experience as the magic recedes can be enough to trigger a clinical depressive episode.

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Identifying your trigger point

Coupled with the drop in temperatures, short days, and long nights, the post-holiday blues start with the natural drop after a high but can also be exacerbated by triggers.

“It’s very easy to play the comparison game this time of year, noticing who has accomplished more than you or people spending time with their families,” says Juliano-Villani. “It can trigger feelings of sadness and inadequacy for things or people we lost, never had, or weren’t the way we expected them to be.”

If this trigger point doesn’t ring true for you, look inward to figure out what yours could be in the post-holiday blues season.

I find this time of year difficult due to a New Year’s Eve trauma, so I evaluate how my compromised mental strength could be triggered by various vulnerabilities during this period.

Armed with this list, I stay mindful of triggering events, like parties, and avoid consuming anything that could exacerbate my symptoms, such as alcohol.

Consider setting aside time to do the same in early 2024, to reflect as the first months unfold.

You don’t need to skip ahead to being better and fantastically amazing — instead, focus on practicing self-care. Sit still for a while to reflect on your status.

“Be here now,” adds Weber. “Every day is a new beginning. It’s hopeful to know that there will be new hopes and dreams, and rather than bang your head against the same old walls, seek inspiration.”

Managing the triggers

When we’re already in a depressive episode, seeing a chink of light in the interminable darkness is hard enough without also needing to formulate a plan of action to guide us out of it.

Try creating a mind map of your current coping strategies, highlighting all the ways you already manage and allowing yourself areas for improvement.

From there, fill in the gaps with potential new strategies to try, like daily walks, regular journaling, trying a new hobby, meeting up with friends, or volunteering.

Do it while you’re in a calm state of mind with few distractions, including background TV! If you have loved ones who also have a hard time with mental health, make it a group activity to bounce ideas off each other.

“Know your coping skills and make sure you integrate them into your daily routine,” says Juliano-Villani. “The more you practice these things, the easier they become if you do find yourself depressed. Move your body, connect with people, get good sleep, and do the things that bring you joy — every day.”

Prioritize finding a little piece of joy in every single day that passes, even if it’s as inconsequential as a traffic light turning green at just the right moment or enjoying a brief moment of respite from the whirling thoughts.

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Working together as a community

Making it through this time of year unscathed may require forging a strong support network, including professionals.

“If you find that you’re struggling to take care of yourself or complete daily tasks, please reach out to a therapist or your primary care provider to get help,” says Juliano-Villani. “Having a good routine can help manage depression somewhat. Small changes lead to big improvements; take everything 1 minute at a time.”

The bottom line

Stay in tune with your loved ones. Depression is best managed in a community, not in self-imposed isolation.

Don’t shy away from it, either. Sometimes the blues hit and there’s no rhyme or reason, but we can practice patient self-compassion when they do.

Medically reviewed on January 25, 2024

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About the author

Hannah Shewan Stevens

Hannah Shewan Stevens is a freelance journalist, speaker, press officer, and newly qualified sex educator. She typically writes about health, disability, sex, and relationships. After working for press agencies and producing digital video content, she’s now focused on feature writing and on best practices for reporting on disability. Follow her on Twitter.

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