Post-holiday depression is situational, so you can reduce its effects and duration. We review practical remedies and ways to help prevent it in the future.
After a major holiday like Christmas is over, whether it met all your expectations or left you wanting more, you might feel somewhat let down.
That’s a normal response.
But if you’re feeling something more serious than basic “party’s over syndrome,” you may be experiencing post-holiday depression.
Let’s take a look at the causes of post-holiday depression as well as coping strategies to help you feel like your usual self as soon as possible.
Post-Holiday Depression Causes and Symptoms
The symptoms of post-holiday depression are very much like those of other kinds of depression — anxiety, fatigue, irritability, mood swings, headaches, sleeping too much or too little, change in appetite, weight loss or gain, inability to concentrate, increased desire to be alone, and loss of interest in things you usually enjoy. (1)
Understanding its causes can help you recover from post-holiday depression and prevent it in the future.
Here are the main contributing factors.
Delayed Holiday Depression
In many cases, post-holiday depression actually starts during the holidays with its jam-packed days and nights of cooking, shopping, overindulging, and socializing.
All the while, there are the highs and lows of expectations and disappointments.
Dr. Kirsti A. Dyer, a loss and bereavement expert, concludes that the main contributors to holiday blues can be summed up as the “Five F’s” — finances, family, festivities, fatigue, and food. (2)
Mental health professionals report that office visits and suicides go down during December only to rebound by mid-January.
It seems that the majority of people generally tough it out until the holidays are over when they have time to reflect on and evaluate their feelings.
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We are strongly encouraged to “spend, spend, spend” during the holidays.
In fact, the economy depends on it since nearly 20% of retail purchases are made during the holidays. (3)
In the US, an astounding 830 billion dollars is spent on Christmas gifts alone.
This does not include the money spent on decorations, travel, entertainment, increased utility bills, party clothes, and other holiday-related expenditures.
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It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and decide to worry about the bills later.
But after the holidays are over, it’s payback time.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to spend less, save more, or pay down your debt, any new debt is particularly stressful.
Unresolved Family Issues
You get to pick your friends, but you can’t choose your family.
If you have mixed feelings about your family, you aren’t alone!
You miss them if you can’t get together during the holidays, but they disappoint you when you do.
The holidays act like a magnifying glass, exaggerating the dysfunctions that most families have.
Getting family members together under one roof is often an unavoidable opportunity to rekindle past insecurities, irritations and problems.
And once the holiday season is over, you have time to reflect on how badly they (or you) behaved.
You may despair over the reasons others act like they do and wonder why your family can’t be “normal.”
During the holidays your calendar is full, probably too full.
Even if you’re relieved when the holidays are over, your calendar may now look a little too empty.
After months of anticipation, you’ve got nothing as exciting to look forward to.
If you took time off work, an extra workload may be the only thing you see on your horizon.
Loneliness is a real problem after the holidays.
If you had a lonely holiday season, you may be feeling especially rejected or isolated.
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Conversely, if your holidays were filled with friends and family, you are feeling their absence.
Bad weather, financial constraints, and cold and flu season can make winter a hard time to get together with friends.
And when you are feeling down, you might not feel inclined to make the effort to spend time with others even though it would do you good.
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Life Out of Balance
During the holidays, normal routines go by the wayside.
You might have eaten badly and drank too much.
You probably spent too much time in crowded stores, sitting in traffic, and partying, and not enough time exercising, de-stressing, and sleeping.
You almost certainly did a lot for others hoping to create some cherished memories, putting your personal needs and health on hold in the process.
This takes a toll on both your physical health and mental well-being.
Risk Factors for Post-Holiday Depression
Some people are at greater risk for post-holiday depression.
If you’ve recently experienced a major life stressor such as an illness or the loss or separation of a loved one, you’ll be more prone to this condition.
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. (4)
If you have a tendency towards depression, this time of year can certainly act as a trigger.
And lastly, there can be physical causes for a winter holiday letdown.
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Vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic problem in most of North America with as many as 75% of Americans not getting enough. (5)
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Seasonal Affective Disorder
Another form of depression that can appear about the same time as post-holiday depression is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
SAD is believed to be caused by lack of sunlight and has symptoms very similar to post-holiday blues, only more pronounced. (8)
Post-holiday depression is categorized as an adjustment disorder — a kind of depression brought on by stressful events — and, if no remedial action is taken, it generally goes away on its own in a few months.
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On the other hand, SAD is thought to be due to a neurotransmitter imbalance caused by lack of daylight.
People with SAD generally have low levels of the happiness brain chemical serotonin and high levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. (9)
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Post-Holiday Depression Coping Strategies
Post-holiday depression is considered a form of situational depression, one brought on by life events.
But that doesn’t mean you have to ride it out until it passes.
If you are struggling, here are some of the best ways to improve your mood quickly.
Plan Something to Look Forward To
Perhaps the easiest and most effective way to lift yourself out of your depression is to plan something to look forward to in the not-too-distant future.
Call an old friend for lunch, host a Super Bowl party, or a plan a weekend getaway.
If you’ve always wanted to try a particular hobby, now is an excellent time to get started.
It turns out that purposeful activities like knitting, sewing, woodworking, arts and crafts, and home repairs can focus your mind to improve mental well-being. (10)
One study found that over 80% of knitters with depression reported feeling happier when they knitted due to an increase in their dopamine levels. (11)
One of my favorite winter planning activities is poring over seed catalogs to design my spring garden.
Get beyond the superficialities and consumerism of the holiday season and reflect on your beliefs as to what the holidays are really about.
Doing for others and being grateful is emphasized by all the great religious traditions and spiritual practices.
Expressing gratitude creates a surge of feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
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According to gratitude expert Dr. Robert Emmons, gratitude may work by reducing underlying negative emotions such as regret, envy, frustration, and resentment. (12)
Several studies show that being grateful reduces the risk of depression. (13)
There is no better time to start a practice of gratitude than after the holidays.
A common way of developing a habit of gratitude is by journaling, but I find sharing grateful thoughts with others even better.
Get some note cards, put pen to paper and write actual thank-you notes for any gift or act of kindness or hospitality you received during the holidays.
If you doubt the value of writing notes versus sending emails, I highly recommend reading A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life by former lawyer and judge John Kralik.
He decided to start writing thank-you notes when his life was at an all-time low.
This book chronicles the profound and surprising ways this simple habit changed his life and touched the lives of those he thanked.
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Stop Idealizing the Holidays
Stop comparing this past holiday to the idealized holidays of your childhood, the movies, or what you imagine others are experiencing.
The actual holidays are short, only a few days out of the year.
Don’t let what they “should” have been color your feelings after they’re over.
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If you have trouble letting go, one of the best ways to keep your mind focused on the present is with meditation.
If you normally meditate but stopped during the holidays, make it a point to pick it up again.
If you don’t already meditate, there is an easier way to get the benefits of meditation.
Clean Up Your Diet
For many of us in the US, the carb fest starts on Halloween and continues through New Year’s Day. It becomes tough to stop.
Quitting sugar and refined carbohydrates is not easy and, in fact, the more you eat, the more addictive they become.
There’s evidence that white sugar is as addictive as cocaine and heroin! (14)
Eating sugar contributes to mood swings, irritability, and brain fog.
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Replace unhealthy processed foods with plenty of vegetables, high-quality protein, and mood-boosting healthy fats like nuts, avocados, fatty fish, and coconut in all its various forms.
Give yourself permission to get rid of any remaining holiday cookies.
If you can’t bring yourself to toss them, give them away or at least stick them in the freezer.
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Get Some Exercise
Depending on where you live, winter may not be the optimal time of year to start exercising (especially outdoors), but doing so will almost guarantee you’ll feel happier.
Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous.
Even moderate, gentle exercise like walking or yoga raises the level of neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins that are essential for lifting your mood. (15, 16, 17)
Author Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing, I love having written.”
Even if you don’t like exercising, hopefully you can learn to love “having exercised.”
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Get More Light
The main treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is getting more exposure to the right kind of light.
Since SAD normally occurs when exposure to sunlight is not an option, the usual treatment is sitting in front of a therapeutic light box.
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If you aren’t sure whether you’re experiencing SAD or post-holiday depression, there is no downside to giving light therapy a try anyway.
The latest research shows that using a light box is as good for treating major depressive disorder as the antidepressant Prozac. (18)
Take Vitamin D
In many areas of the world, it’s impossible to get enough sun during the winter to synthesize adequate amounts of vitamin D.
For vitamin D synthesis to occur, the UV index must be 3 or above. (19)
In most of Europe and North America, the sun is this strong only in the summer, even on sunny days.
Vitamin D deficiency can contribute to the blue mood your currently feeling.
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It’s not understood exactly how vitamin D alleviates depression, but it’s thought to increases levels of “feel good” brain chemicals. (20)
If you have any doubt where you stand, get your vitamin D status checked with a blood test.
Meanwhile, there is no harm in taking a vitamin D supplement.
Cut Yourself Some Slack
Christmas and other holidays that occur during the cold and darker days of winter are challenging for almost everyone.
This is nothing new.
Civilizations have celebrated the end of shorter days and the return of longer daylight hours for thousands of years. (21)
Imagine how much harder it probably was to endure long nights before artificial lighting came along!
Be patient with yourself and know that, just as surely as spring follows winter, your post-holiday blues will fade with the change of the seasons.
And speaking of cutting yourself some slack …
Save yourself some heartache and skip making any New Year’s resolutions.
Only 8% of those who make resolutions achieve their goals anyway. (22)
This doesn’t mean you should not take steps towards improving your health, but there is no point setting yourself up for failure while you’re feeling down.
Post-Holiday Depression: The Bottom Line
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.
Following a few diet guidelines, doing regular moderate exercise, and getting adequate light exposure are important physical remedies.
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.