Some call the holidays the season of cheer. Others call it the season of jeer. Many fall somewhere in between.
Much to-do is made about the holidays themselves. There’s the cliche that it’s a happy, cozy time full of delightful family gatherings and traditions.
However, not everyone experiences this type of holiday. Grief, loss, and the stress of the hustle-and-bustle can take their toll on mental health.
Then there’s what happens when the silver and gold decorations get boxed up, and the calendar flips to January 2. You may feel a little blue after New Years regardless of your feelings during the holidays themselves.
You’re not alone.
Here’s what to do when the post-holiday blues happen, how to prepare, and helpful coping mechanisms so you can feel a bit jollier in January and beyond.
There aren’t many studies about holiday emotions, but an older 2006 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) suggested that 78 percent of people often felt happiness while 68 percent often or sometimes felt fatigued.
Like holiday emotions, the idea of post-holiday blues hasn’t been studied much, though some research and experts say it’s fairly common.
“Post-holiday blues is the sadness you feel after the holiday season is over,” says Angela Ficken, LICSW, a Boston-based psychotherapist.
It’s a let-down that happens after a busy season of seeing family and friends. It’s similar to what happens after highly anticipated events like vacations and weddings.
Rae Mazzei, Psy.D., B.C.B., an Arizona-based health psychologist, shares that common symptoms of post-holiday blues may include:
- regret about things you did or didn’t say or do
- emptiness because of a pared-down schedule with fewer or no celebrations
- loneliness, with fewer people to see and events to attend
- sadness that the holidays ended or that they weren’t what you thought they’d be
- trouble sleeping because of stress or difficult emotions
However, there was a rebound across the board post-holiday.
There are several reasons why someone may experience post-holiday blues, notes Mike Dow, psychotherapist at Field Trip and New York Times bestselling author of “The Brain Fog Fix.”
- that everyone else had a great time with loving families during the holidays
- family problems, like estrangement
- pre-existing mental health issues
- alcohol misuse or binge-drinking during the holiday
Dow says loneliness and isolation are two of the most striking factors in the development of post-holiday blues. He says this makes sense based on epigenetics, or the study of how behavioral and environmental factors influence how genes work without changing DNA.
“The stress of loneliness can ‘turn on’ genes for mental illness—especially in those with a personal or family history,” Dow says.
On the flip side, Dow notes that people who enjoy spending time with their family and friends may get a boost of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
When the season ends, so does that boost—and the let-down begins.
A survey of 1,000 Americans suggested that 47 percent of men and 40 percent of women engaged in binge drinking on New Year’s Eve, more than any other holiday.
In the survey, binge drinking was defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more for women in two hours.
Though not about post-holiday feelings in particular, a 2020 study of people in Singapore linked binge drinking with mental health issues and reduced quality of life.
You may think it’s too early to think about post-holiday blues, but Dow says it’s never too soon to have plans for prevention.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
— Mike Dow, Psychotherapist
Set boundaries for the holidays
Post-holiday blues may be triggered in part by your experience during the holidays.
Feeling obligated to attend events with family members you have issues with or participating in traditions you don’t enjoy can lead to feelings of frustration.
You may also look at other friends’ happy social media posts and feel envy.
“Set boundaries, especially if you’re a people pleaser,” Dow says.
Boundaries may mean skipping certain family functions, but you may also be able to strike a compromise that appeases a loved one while protecting your mental health.
“If your mom wants you to come home for 10 days, but you grow increasingly anxious at home, then go for a weekend,” Dow suggests. “If you’re more comfortable at a hotel, then sleep there.”
Change the way you think
Mazzei notes that people may spend the holiday season dreading what comes after. She suggests nixing these unhelpful thoughts through cognitive reframing.
“For example, you may reframe the thought, ‘January is going to be a terrible month’ into ‘Although I will miss the holidays, I’m going to focus on what’s important to me now and be grateful for the time I experienced during the holiday,’” Mazzei says.
Though there aren’t studies on cognitive reframing specifically related to the holiday season and the period after, a 2018 study of 201 people with severe mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggested cognitive restructuring significantly reduced PTSD symptoms.
Establish a self-care routine
Staying in a routine can be hard during the holiday hustle, but Ficken says routinely making time for yourself can help you transition from one season to the next.
“The parties and holiday fun might be over, but your self-care routine remains,” Ficken says. That consistency can help get you through those blues.”
Ficken says this routine doesn’t have to be elaborate. It might simply be walking once per week or getting coffee with a good friend every Friday morning.
“The parties and holiday fun might be over, but your self-care routine remains.”
— Angela Ficken, LICSW
Use the buddy system
Some people experience post-holiday blues after the whirlwind of social events. The sudden solitude can bring up feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Leaning on friends can help you continue to feel connected. If you’re anticipating post-holiday blues, give someone you trust a heads up.
“Connect with a friend and ask for what you need in positive and very specific requests,” Dow says. “It’s a lot easier for your best friend to check in with you every day via text if you ask for that.”
Vague statements like, “The time after the holidays is no fun,” may only elicit a nod rather than an actionable, helpful response from your friend.
During these conversations, be honest about your feelings.
“Look at your system of support and share some of your post-holiday blues experiences with them,” says Kiana Shelton, LCSW, of Mindpath Health.
They may be experiencing similar feelings, and you’ll feel less alone.
Practicing gratitude during the entire holiday season can allow good feelings to carry over into the rest of the year.
“Try to come up with three things that you are grateful for daily,” Mazzei recommends. “Continue with this practice after the holidays.”
Research from 2019 indicated that gratitude might increase life satisfaction.
Schedule events for after the holidays
Though the steady flow of parties and gatherings can be stressful, not everyone looks forward to the added downtime post-holidays.
Shelton suggests making plans to continue to make plans with those whose company you’d like to keep—particularly if the holidays remind you that you don’t see one another often enough.
“Some of our post-holiday blues consist of reflecting on how infrequently we see family and friends during the rest of the year,” Shelton says. “Setting up plans can give you some more things to look forward to.”
Even if you have a support system and coping mechanisms prepared, you may be taken aback by how challenging the post-holiday blues are this year.
If negative feelings sneak up on you, Dow suggests a three-step process.
- Acknowledge your feelings.
- Reframe all feelings as information.
- Focus on what you have.
You can acknowledge your feelings by journaling or speaking with a friend, but this step is essential.
“There’s that sweet spot that lies in between ruminating in loneliness and denying it,” Dow says. “Once you acknowledge your feelings, they will tend to feel manageable.”
Dow says that reframing feelings, including challenging ones, allows you to examine what changes are necessary.
“Lonely? Time to form deeper relationships,” Dow says.
Empty? Consider volunteering or adding something that will bring meaning into your life. Feeling down about yourself? Time to make a change in the coming year.
Finally, circle back to gratitude journaling and write down three things you’re grateful for.
Line up professional support
If the post-holiday blues typically hit you particularly hard, ensure you have professional support in place.
“You could set up a session with your therapist for the day after Christmas just in case you need it,” Dow says.
It may feel like a setback to feel so down, especially if you’ve worked hard on your mental health all year and were able to scale back on therapy sessions.
Still, Shelton stresses it’s important to give yourself grace.
“Adjustment periods can be hard, but with a few tools, you can find yourself back to your version of normal rather quickly,” Shelton says. “Consider this a quick mental health tune-up.”
You can find therapists through:
- family and friend referrals
- healthcare providers
- Healthline’s FindCare
If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available. Dial 988 to access the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, where people are standing by to help you 24/7 in English and Spanish.
Mental health providers say post-holiday blues are a normal response to adjusting to life after the winter holidays. They occur for different reasons in different people.
If you know you struggle with post-holiday blues, you can prepare for them in advance. Line up support, such as friends or a therapist.
Establishing year-round self-care routines and planning fun events for January and February can also ease the transition.
Ready for a calm and stress-free holiday? Check out Healthline’s Season of Self-Care, your go-to destination for the latest must-have health and wellness gifts for your loved ones – and you!
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.