You know the feeling. It's an odd mental state most of us experience as the holiday season comes to a close. It starts after all the presents have been opened, the good times ended, and the tasty leftovers finished. It hits hard after we've shared, liked and commented on every cute image left to find on Instagram. Sadness suddenly creeps into our minds at the beginning of the year, when our thoughts shift to getting back to the daily grind. Welcome to the “post-holiday blues.”
The post-holiday blues hit many of us like an invisible flu. While general feelings of sadness and loss are relatively common around the holidays, there are specific activities you can try to subdue those moments of mild moodiness and fend off seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD), a mood disorder that is linked to hormonal shifts in the brain that coincide with the change in seasons. The condition is generally diagnosed more often in women than men, but other factors such as lack of sunlight (leading to seasonal vitamin D deficiency) can also contribute to depression and fatigue.
Here are some tips to help turn your post-holiday blues triggers into something more productive.
Blues trigger #1: Slowing down (or realizing your inner “social butterfly” is returning to its cocoon)
The frenetic socializing around the holidays seems to many of us like busy work that we love to complain about. But this increased social activity also provides us with positive feelings of connectedness and belonging, even if we wish we duck out of some of the office parties or family obligations. When the holidays end, our calendars empty out, and we move from once having too much to do to not enough. We tend to miss the positive aspects of being highly social far more than the extra effort it takes to put ourselves out there, and this can lead to temporary emotional states of loss and sadness.
Solution: Make plans to continue normal levels of socialization, especially with people you miss and don't see often enough. Make calendar dates to virtual shop, plan for a big reunion, or plan a special event. If you can’t plan a trip until later in the year, research shows that the simple act of planning a vacation can help alleviate feelings of sadness. And if planning a trip is too much, you can simply make a date for a monthly video call as an alternative. Any of these actions will help ease the transition from high social activity to normal levels.
Blues trigger #2: Eating normally again (or realizing you can't eat every delicious thing you see forever)
Let's face it, some of the biggest emotional payoffs over the holidays come from letting yourself really enjoy all the special-occasion foods and desserts. We spend time planning, preparing, and consuming special meals that are extraordinary. We pause our diets, we overeat because it tastes good, and we tell ourselves "after this last meal, it's time to get serious again." And then we realize it's actually time to get serious again, and we can't help but feel a little sad.
Solution: First, go easy on yourself about overeating during the holidays. Focus instead on the memories you created while putting yourself in a great mood to make those memories available in the first place. Next, take time to create a "bounce-back" meal plan that focuses on your health goals for the next year. If new year's resolutions mean anything, they should provide you with the opportunity to make specific plans to be a better advocate for your health.
Make a plan to do something good for improving your health. We have written about how to become your own best health advocate.
Eat well to avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): These foods can help.
Blues trigger #3: Unresolved family arguments (or realizing your family believes in things that drive you crazy)
Consider this trigger a sign of the times no matter which philosophical or political spectrum you happen to be on. There is an out-of-the-ordinary polarization occurring in our society today that intensifies during conversations taking place around the holidays. Arguments about personal beliefs including religion and politics may seem unavoidable if you wish to talk about anything other than the weather and ball games. Disagreements with family members around the holidays can lead to prolonged feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, and isolation.
Solution: Learn how to communicate differences of opinion better. One way we can relieve our own stress and reconnect with people on a more human level is by making time to learn better ways to disagree with the people you care about. Take the time and initiative to learn how to disagree respectfully and help bring shared values back to the forefront. Learning how to argue civilly and how to disagree respectfully can be very empowering and can help improve feelings of sadness to a meaningful degree.
Consider this TED talk on how to disagree productively:
The bottom line: To beat the post-holiday blues, be aware of the triggers that lead to depressed emotional states and take active steps to deal with your stressors. January should be the month to look forward to the year ahead with optimism. Make plans to see friends and family more, eat healthier throughout the year, and learn how to communicate shared values so you can disagree respectfully with the people that matter most to you.
And if you find you just can't shake off more prolonged feelings of depression once the holiday cheer is over, reach out to a health care provider.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.