Why Post-Holiday Depression Happens and How to Cope

Published July 25, 2022
Young woman looking at her tablet felling the holiday blues

Fall and winter are filled with festivities that bring family and friends together. This can be a time that brings people joy as they celebrate with loved ones. But what happens after all of the celebrations are over?

Some people experience post-holiday depression, which can leave them feeling low and fatigued. In addition, they may have difficulty sleeping and may even avoid social interaction. Although not everyone feels depressed after the holiday season, many experience emotional and behavioral changes that can impact their well-being.

Causes of Post-Holiday Depression

The holidays bring people a lot to celebrate, but they also bring a unique set of challenges as they come to pass. There are several reasons why someone might experience depression after the holidays.

Winter Blues

Psychologists have noticed that some people experience behavioral changes in the fall and winter months. Common terms for this change include the winter blues or the holiday blues. It's when people experience mild mood changes that seem to occur in a pattern that mirrors the changing of the seasons. For example, a person might feel depressed, have difficulty sleeping, or avoid social gatherings.

More research is needed to confirm the cause of the winter blues. However, many psychologists attribute it to the fact that the winter season has shorter days, less sunlight, and colder weather which can be unpleasant and keep people inside their homes instead of engaging in activities that usually bring them joy.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a clinical term used to describe a condition where a person experiences severe changes to their mood, behavior, and thoughts during specific seasons throughout the year. SAD is a form of depression. People might experience either a winter-pattern behavior change where symptoms begin in the fall and last until spring. Or, they might experience a summer-pattern behavior change where symptoms begin in the summer and leave when the fall comes.

People with SAD may experience a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, depressed mood, or social withdrawal. They may experience symptoms that are similar to those those attributed to winter blues, but they are affected by the symptoms more dramatically. For example, people with either the winter blues or SAD may experience difficulty sleeping. However, a person with SAD might get poorer quality sleep or sleep for longer periods of time.

The Christmas Effect

Psychologists have noticed that many people seem to experience a drop in mood right after the Christmas holiday. This is specific phenomenon is known as "the Christmas effect".

Sad Woman Buried Her Head In Pillow While Lying On Sofa In Christmas

Studies found that when individuals were surveyed about how they felt after the Christmas holiday, many reported that they experienced loneliness, anxiety, and helplessness. Survey responses also showed that participants felt this way because they believed that others were having more fun than they were when celebrating with family members and friends.

Celebration Burnout

Factor that contribute to holiday fun are also factors that can make it challenging. For example, you may have a blast going from one party, family dinner, or holiday movie night to the next when you're in the middle of it. However, when the intense social calendar continues month after month, it can be draining.

You may experience burnout from spending time with loved ones and having to keep constant social commitments. After the holidays pass, and you finally have time to rest, you may start to feel the impact that all of the events had on you mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Withdrawal From Loved Ones

After spending time with loved ones during the holiday season, you may have difficultly when they leave, especially if you only see each other during the holidays. You may experience feelings of sadness or withdrawal from their company when they are no longer close. You may even feel isolated if your immediate family circle is small or if your loved ones offer a lot of emotional support when you are together. It can also be daunting to think that you have to wait another year for everyone to get back together again.

The End of Celebration

Many people believe that the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year. Everything feels lighter, people are happier, and there are decorations all around. The holidays draw people in and give them a cozy holiday cheer that they may only get to experience once a year. After the holidays, it can be difficult to know that you may have to wait to engage in your favorite activities again. Also, you might feel like that special little spark that the season brings has been snuffed out.

Back to Work Stress

Holiday vacations offer people much-needed time away from the office. However, when the vacation comes to an end, many people feel the stress of heading back to work. People can feel pressure to get back into the swing of things at their jobs after they have been away for a while, and it can be challenging to switch back into work mode. Also, many worry about the workload that has been stacking up while they were away. This can cause people's schedules to be jam-packed, and even stretch them beyond their bandwidth.

Post-Holiday Depression Symptoms

Symptoms of the winter blues are very similar to symptoms of post-holiday depression. Also, winter-pattern SAD has many characteristics that overlap with major depressive disorder, which people often refer to as generalized depression. An important distinction between the winter blues and the more clinical SAD diagnosis is that people with SAD experience more severe symptoms.

Symptoms of the winter blues can vary from person to person. If you get the winter blues the severity of symptoms can also vary. Some people may experience symptoms more frequently, such as every year, or they may only experience symptoms every other year.

Some symptoms of winter depression according to the National Institutes of Health include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling low or sad
  • Low energy levels
  • Overeating and craving carbohydrates
  • Oversleeping
  • Social withdrawal
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Weight gain

People who experience a winter-pattern SAD often experience symptoms of social withdrawal and oversleeping. Some people even compare this behavior pattern to the idea of hibernating for the winter. In addition, people often experience cravings for comfort food during the winter seasons when they are feeling down, which can lead to an increase in carbohydrates in their diet.

How to Cope With Post-Holiday Depression

If you experience post-holiday depression, you're not alone. Many people feel down after the intense social period filled with holiday festivities. Whether you're feeling a few symptoms or many, there are some things you can do to help yourself cope.

Keep the Celebration Going

Are you the kind of person that loves the holiday season? If so, you may be able to boost your mood by keeping the celebration going. Just because your favorite holiday has passed, it doesn't mean that you can no longer celebrate. Leave your decorations up for as long as you need. Watch your favorite seasonal movies with friends. Make your favorite holiday food to bring yourself some comfort. You may even be able to take some elements from your favorite holiday and incorporate them into your life throughout the year, like hanging lights in your house or using pumpkin-scented candles.

Make a Holiday Count Down

When your favorite time of year seems to come and go, it may leave you with sad thoughts about how long you have to wait for it to come around again. However, you can put a positive spin on the days in between. Make a count-down chain with your loved ones and pull one link off every day. Create a countdown on your phone and track the days as they pass. Have mini celebrations with friends and family for countdown milestones, like each month that goes by. This may make your waiting a bit more enjoyable, and can also connect you to family and friends.

Lean on Family and Friends

Chances are that you are not the only one in your social circle experiencing the winter blues. Talk to your family and friends about how you are feeling after the holidays. Lean on them as a source of social support, even if you can only connect with them virtually. You can create a sense of community with each other, and it can feel validating to hear from people close to you that they experience similar emotions during the holidays.

Sad couple hugging at Christmas

Give Yourself a Break

If you think that you may be experiencing post-holiday depression due to burnout, then give yourself a break. Tell your family and friends that you truly had a great time seeing them, but that now you want to take time for yourself. Say no to social gatherings and invitations if you don't feel up to it. Turn off your phone notifications whenever you can, or log out of social media for a while. Do whatever you need to do to help yourself unwind and recharge.

Appreciate the Good Things

One way to shift your attention from negative thoughts and remind yourself of all of the good things in life is to practice gratitude. Gratitude is simply the practice of being thankful. Research shows that a gratitude practice can help people cope with stress and also improve emotional well-being.

If the holiday season felt draining, show gratitude for the things that helped get you through it. If you are feeling low because the holiday season is over, reflect on the fun times you had and show appreciation for the experiences that helped make it memorable. Focussing your attention on positive thoughts is also a good way to break the cycle of negative thought patterns that many people experience when they are feeling down. Some ways to practice gratitude are:

Women sitting on couch wearing christmas mask and holding her dog
  • Begin your day by appreciating your body.
  • Call a loved one on the phone.
  • Cuddle with your pet.
  • Make a bullet list of things that make you happy.
  • Put on your favorite outfit and appreciate how it makes you feel.
  • Start a gratitude journal.
  • Write a letter to a friend.

Nourish Your Body

If you are experiencing post-holiday depression, one of the last things you probably want to do is exercise. It takes way less energy to stay in bed than it does to get up and stroll around the block. However, physical activity provides health benefits. Research shows that physical activity can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, lower stress levels, and increase energy. It'll also give you a chance to stretch your legs and help you nourish your body.

You do not need to go to the gym if you don't want to. In fact, you can start small by practicing simple stretches in the morning. Maybe you will try to follow a yoga flow online. Eventually, you might want to step out of the house and walk around the park. Find what feels good for you and do your best to get moving.

Tend to Your Health

When you feel low, it can be easy to set aside your own health and wellness needs because negative thoughts and feelings become overwhelming. It might be easier to order fast food take-out or munch on unhealthy snacks than it is to cook a meal. It also probably feels much easier sleep in than it is to get up and participate in healthy routines.

These are just some of the ways that your mental health can also impact your physical health. And, when you're already feeling drained mentally and emotionally, it may be more important than ever to take care of your body. Some ways you can take care of yourself are:

  • Aim to get about 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
  • Check in with your body and mind throughout the day.
  • Establish a morning and nighttime routine.
  • Give yourself 30 minutes before bed to wind down.
  • Do your best to incorporate vitamins and minerals into your diet.
  • Don't forget to take your medication or vitamin supplements.
  • Schedule a visit with your healthcare provider.
  • Start a mindfulness or meditation practice.
  • Stay away from screens before bedtime.
  • Take breaks when you need to.

It's okay if you feel drained after the holidays. Be gentle with yourself. Try to take steps in the right direction to cope with the experience. Be proud of yourself for tending to your well-being. It may be difficult to change thought patterns and behaviors on your coping journey, especially in the beginning. However, you will start to feel more like yourself one positive wellness choice at a time.

Why Post-Holiday Depression Happens and How to Cope