You’ve opened all the presents, recovered from food comas, and uploaded your holiday photos to Instagram. But now that the trimmings are gone and parties are over, are you feeling down? It might come as no surpirse that seasonal blues often reach their peak once the festivities have ended.
“As joyous as they can be, the stress and expectations associated with the holidays can overwhelm us and switch our brains into overdrive,” says Brett Kennedy, a clinical psychologist based in Colorado. Think about it: Days and weeks of socializing, cooking, gift shopping, traveling, and tying up loose ends at work—all of which amplify stress and leave little room for self-care like exercise or meditation.
“Then, once everything’s over, there’s a reckoning—we crash,” Kennedy says. Fatigue sets in, our motivation to get to the gym dwindles, our drive to tackle unanswered emails is sapped, and our bodies reel from overindulging in food and drink. Luckily, it doesn't have to be that way. We've rounded up the best tips for kicking the post-holiday blues so you can get through the rest of winter happily.
Post-Holiday Blues Causes (and How to Beat Them)
1. Staying constantly connected.
"People expect to feel refreshed when they come back from a holiday,” says Amanda Itzkoff, M.D., a psychiatrist at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital. But here’s the reality of a world where emails and texts follow us everywhere: Holiday vacations aren’t always restful.
“Many people still work remotely during breaks. If not, they’re stressing about what awaits them once they return, "Itzkoff says. "This contributes to feeling let down after the holidays because they haven’t allowed themselves time to recharge.”
Even if you’re not deluged with emails, technology has other ways of dragging you down. “We risk inundating ourselves with information that over-stimulates our neurons and stirs feelings of envy, anxiety, and possibly depression,” Kennedy says. Consider how you feel comparing your imperfect (read: honest) family vacation to the beaming, filtered photos your friends post to Instagram.
We need a break from constantly checking our devices in order to decompress and bring down our cortisol levels, Kennedy says. He recommends setting up periods of tech-free times—say, at the dinner table, where a “no-phone zone” enables you to reconnect with family and practice being present. Or try scheduling some hour-long breaks in your day to disconnect, take a walk, call a friend, or meditate.
2. Food-frenzied festivities.
“We get into this mindset of, 'I have to try this, or that, or everything,'" says Lauren Graf, R.D., of the Montefiore Medical Center's Cardiac Wellness Program. “We overindulge either because we feel pressured to put everything on our plate or because we feel we’ve blown it anyway—it’s the holidays, let’s just eat junk.”
When we relinquish this self-control, we set ourselves up for failure. Not only do we feel a wave of post-binge guilt, Graf says, but we spike our insulin levels when we overeat. The higher those insulin levels go, the more drastically our blood sugar crashes in the hours after a meal. And that leaves us tired, moody, irritable, and hankering for even more sugar. Do this for too many days in a row and you risk “resetting your palate to crave extra-sweet items,” says Graf, “rather than appreciating the taste of healthier foods, like fruits and veggies.”
Even worse? “The stress of regulating blood sugar during mega-consumptions of junk food can depress our immune systems,” says Justine Campbell, R.D., a holistic nutrition therapy practitioner. Cue yet another mental and physical stressor—not to mention a major impediment to post-holiday motivation and happiness.
Pulling your diet back toward healthy foods will help pull your mood back into alignment as well, but there are pitfalls with doing a fast-and-furious food-180 (more on that below).
3. Not cutting ourselves some slack.
After weeks of indulging in sugary, fatty desserts, skimping on fruits and veggies, and forgoing the gym, it will take some effort to resume a healthier regimen. The key: Put some patience on your plate.
“Your first week back from the holidays is about readjusting and resuming your regular routine,” Itzkoff says. “Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t check off all the items on your to-do list the first day back at work. And try not to set expectations unreasonably high.” If you don’t like going to the gym or you’ve always had a sweet tooth, you can’t expect to magically be able to cut carbs and hit the treadmill six days a week. Translation: Keep your New Year’s resolutions realistic.
Another tip: Avoid making your healthier diet entirely about elimination. Alternatively, “Think about adding a veggie to every meal,” Itzkoff says. You’ll naturally scale back on the bad stuff if you prioritize the good.
4. Fast-forwarding past holiday cheer.
A huge part of keeping our spirits up after the holidays relies on tweaking our attitude toward the positive. Instead of wallowing under the weight of obligation, remember the good experiences you had during the holidays, says Rosemary Sword, a counselor who specializes in trauma recovery. "[Focus on] the beauty of the lights and decorations, the smell of evergreens, the taste of special seasonal foods, and the warmth of coming in from the cold.”
Try your hand at reviving the lost art of thank-you notes to express gratitude. Choose a few of your favorite holiday photos to print out and frame. Or keep one of your favorite Christmas or Hannukah decorations around for a few extra months as a positive memory trigger. Doing these activities will let you savor the festive spirit a little longer.
5. Facing a blank January calendar.
Scheduling some fun activities for the New Year can be a helpful boost to our mood. Research shows that having things to look forward to keeps us happy. Why not host a President’s Day party and invite guests to come dressed as their best Commander-in-Chief? Or host a party on Valentine's Day so no one can complain about not having plans. A movie night with friends, a nice dinner out, a relaxing massage, or a day hike may be all it takes. It’s the anticipation of fun that counts.
With the holidays over and work in full swing, many of us might experience dips in mood, motivation, and energy. Getting back on track takes a few weeks, so take it easy as you transition back to a normal routine. Avoid lofty expectations, schedule fun outings to look forward to, and don’t forget to unplug!
If your blues don’t lift in the days and weeks after you return to the office, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. (Seasonal Affective Disorder is a legit issue.) And don't forget to make a New Year’s resolution to prioritize health and happiness. Your body and brain will thank you!
Originally published December 2014. Updated November 2015.