I've always felt that Fall and the buildup to the holiday season are the best times of year. Starting in September, you get the fresh start of the changing seasons, then the excitement of Halloween and cozy family time over Thanksgiving. It's all a crescendo to the big finale: the holiday season, which means a break from work or school, much-needed time with family and friends, the best food, and major relaxation.
The problem can start once it's all over. You've just spent weeks or even months looking forward to the holidays, rushing from one social engagement to the next, focusing on the people you love, and making the most out of this time of year. Then, all of a sudden, it's over. You wake up on Jan. 2 and it's like . . . now what? That whiplash from December to January, from holiday to reality, can leave you disoriented, bereft, or even depressed. For people who can't or choose not to spend time with family or friends, or who struggle with depression year-round, those feelings might start even earlier. Coping with them can feel like a challenge that renews itself every year, never getting any easier.
What Causes a Post-Holiday Mental Health Slump?
"Around the time of the holidays, there's so much emphasis on human connection," said Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, a clinical social worker in California who specializes in depression and anxiety. You might schedule more social gatherings on your calendar. You might spend more time with family and friends. When all of that ends, the sudden loss of connection (or not having those connections to begin with) can trigger feelings of loneliness, Alyssa said.
You're also likely to have more time off during the holidays. You relax your usual structure and routine, Alyssa said, which feels good and is good for you; we all need a break from time to time. Returning to the grind after that time off naturally dredges up feelings of dread. "It's going back to all of the things that you have to do, those things that were put on pause," Alyssa said. "You find that those are things that don't go away. They're still there, you still have to face them." It's like coming back to work after any vacation: a little depressing.
That natural letdown of coming back to your routine combines with whatever deeper emotions the post-holiday period brings up for you: loneliness, homesickness, maybe sorrow or grief. It's no surprise that the combination can lead to a downturn in your mood and mental health.
How to Manage Your Post-Holiday Depression
Dealing with your post-holidays slump isn't easy, but it's not impossible. Alyssa said the recommendations intersect with treatments for depression. And while these tips are all things you can do by yourself, remember that seeking therapy and professional help is always an option, especially if your post-holiday slump isn't abating over time. (If you've never seen a therapist before, here's how to find one and prepare for your first session.)
- Create a routine. This might be the hardest step; a big reason why it's so hard to come back after the holidays is that you don't know how — or don't want to — return to your routine. "It's kind of a catch-22," Alyssa says. Start really small, she advised, with simple and achievable goals you can do right in your home. Clean up your house or make a meal for yourself. If you're not up to seeing a friend face-to-face, text or call them. When you meet those smaller goals, you'll feel more motivated and capable. "That will make you want to set more goals, or try to do something a little more than that," Alyssa explained.
- Get active. Exercise isn't a cure for depression, but it's often recommended for a reason. Physical activity triggers the release of mood-boosting endorphins and can decrease inflammation, which may be linked to depression for some people. It doesn't have to be extreme, either. "Go out for walks, exercise, go on hikes," Alyssa said. "Whatever is within your limits."
- Stay connected with the people you love. Making plans with people after the holidays is one way to mitigate the loneliness and loss of connection, Alyssa told POPSUGAR. It can be small, too: going out for coffee or lunch, inviting someone over, scheduling a FaceTime call, or simply texting a friend. Alyssa recommended planning ahead, maybe even scheduling a post-holiday catch-up before the holidays, so you have something to look forward to.
- Engage in self-care. Self-care looks different for everyone, so think about what makes you feel safe, loved, and connected with yourself. You could try journaling, meditation, exercise, a massage, or something as simple as a warm bath or listening to your favorite song. Here are more therapist-approved ways to practice self-care.
- Acknowledge that what you're feeling is OK. It's not fun to feel down after the holidays, but it's also not abnormal. Don't judge it as good or bad, Alyssa said. You're not the only one feeling this way. Acknowledge what you're feeling and practice patience, kindness, and acceptance that those emotions are valid.