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Here’s Why You’re Extra-Bummed After the Holidays

It's completely normal to be sad as hell in early January. Why? Let us count the ways.

If you find yourself depressed now that the holidays are over, and by some estimates, a quarter of people get the post-holiday blues, try thinking of it this way: Things did not get worse just because the gifts are all unwrapped, the parties have ended, the nostalgia porn of Christmas music, lights, smells and decorations faded out, our families have begged off back to their own homes, and now we’re back at work. Things merely went back to how they were before all the hullabaloo, which by comparison is very boring and bad. Christmas was your favorite drug, and now you’ve crashed back down to regular town.

Of course, some people are already depressed come the holidays, and some people have other causes for not being super fans of Jan-you-wary.

The reasons for the sadness many people claim to feel at this time are generally attributed to three causes:

  • You were already depressed, so you still are.
  • You have seasonal affective disorder or SAD, and though that can start as early as the fall, for a lot of people it hits its peak right now in January where it’s generally cold-ish and miserable in most places.
  • You have the post-holiday blues, a phenomenon where after the fun holiday vibes you feel shitty because the fun stuff is all over and now what am I supposed to do, sit here and eat leftover ham and read a book or god forbid embark upon some self-improvement plan I pretended to come up with because I thought I had to? 
  • You have some form of all three of these things happening at once.

It’s more specific than this, of course, because there are any number of things that the holiday dredges up that leave the post-holiday period feeling particularly bleak.

In a roundup at Psychology Today, therapist Linda Walter reels off a slew of reasons for the emotional face-plant:

  • We get bored and isolated after all the parties and socializing ends and we are back home alone with only ourselves.
  • We spent too much time with family, and our family sucks and did all that sucky stuff they always do that sucks.
  • We are forced to think about people who died or we broke up with or who broke up with us and it is hella sad.
  • And, baby, it’s fucking cold outside.
  • Baby, you’re fucking tired.
  • Baby, you were off work for just enough to get a taste of freedom and now you’re already back.
  • Baby, you ate and drank so much you feel like a bloated lush. (You get the idea, baby.)

Add to this that January is also New Year’s Resolution Mania Time for a lot of folks where everyone and their third cousin is peddling an idea for how to improve yourself during the least motivating month on Earth. January should be spent on recovery from holiday mania, not hamster-wheeling your way to a new you, but try telling that to the Up With People brigade.

Research tells us that even if we already felt terrible before the holidays ever started, that people generally seek out fewer mental health services during the holidays. In a comprehensive review of the existing studies on psychopathology during the holidays, researchers found that generally speaking, those who do seek holiday therapy treatment related to drug or alcohol abuse or other self-harm are already suffering with mental illness, typically more extreme forms. Aside from this, there’s a general decrease in people visiting the ER or seeking out psychiatric services, and then a general increase in both as soon as the New Year rings in.

It’s not that the people who crash and burn after the holidays don’t feel bad during the holidays, too. Researchers note that that the dysphoric mood is there, but theorized that people may have more resources to lean on during this time that aren’t there normally. Somehow, Christmas has a “protective effect” on that depression, almost as if it’s acting as a mental health Band-Aid of sorts, a patchwork until they can get through it and then fall apart.

There are more practical possibilities as well: Perhaps the holiday season offers a glimmer of hope that things might go differently this time, that connections may still be made, relationships may forge ahead, and there’s a generally greater sense of compassion and caring that temporarily buffers or restores one’s faith in humanity, if for no other reason than that we witness a world that suddenly appears relatively gentler and more palatable in many ways. Strangers seem to generally extend each other a greater benefit of the doubt, and there are generally more random acts of kindness, even if it’s just saying Happy Holidays to everyone you encounter. Then, as soon as the calendar flips to the next year, it’s business as usual, as if it were all just a dream, and that feels disorienting and unpleasant at the very least.

It’s not just the holidays that produce this feeling. People feel this way after a vacation, their own wedding, a great show, an epic orgasm, an athletic win or the end of the movie Avatar. Anything that offers an unusually high high, particularly if it comes with frantic, busy planning, organizing and doing, will make whatever comes next feel like an unusually low low — that’s all thanks to your pal dopamine messing with your brain.

So what is to be done? As unappealing as it may seem, most of the advice for how to manage this is on the front end. It’s largely reminding yourself that this is what happens every year, and if you can accept this, it will go a long way toward creating an emotional soft landing for yourself.

As one of my favorite bands once sang, “You can’t change the feeling/But you can change the feeling/About the feeling,” which I think of often when I’m reminding myself that it’s only our interpretation of something that defines the experience. In other words, telling ourselves the holidays will be something to endure, and that afterward, it will probably suck for a little while until we figure out some way to get very busy again may provide its own protective effect.

And then, we have to do something about it. Make plans, work on something, find an activity, and generally look for something to provide meaning in our lives. Because as isolating as the post-holiday blues can make us feel — as if we are cut off from the experience everyone else is having — it’s actually just a reminder that like most people on earth, we do best when we have something to look forward to. The holidays do it for us, but the rest of the year, we need to keep scheduling our own holidays.

Sometimes, lowered expectations is the smartest gift you can give yourself.