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Holiday Hangover




Well, here we are again. Another holiday season has come and gone. How was it for you? Did you put into action any recommendations from the previous post, "Mindfully Navigating the Holidays?" For many of you, illness may have been an unexpected and unwelcomed gift for your holiday season. In my home, a "cold-like virus" was the gift that kept on giving from Halloween through the New Year. Whether this time was filled with celebration and joy or more burdened with stress and obligation, you may notice that, for you, the first week or two of January brings its own emotional and mental experience. Have you heard of "post holiday blues?" Though not a diagnosis or medical condition, this temporary mood state is a real thing experienced by many people noticing a slump in mood, energy, interpersonal interaction, and general functioning.


Despite the title, post-holiday blues don't necessarily have anything to do with alcohol consumption - though a few weeks of excessive drinking will likely have plenty affect on mood and functioning. If you haven't experienced this phenomenon, perhaps you've at least heard of it. Feeling more gloomy than usual is not uncommon during the winter months. Many people choose to stay indoors, withdraw, or limit themselves in activities they normally find fun or enjoyable, due to their relationship with the weather and climate associated with winter. In the worlds of mental health and medicine, we refer to this as Seasonal Affective Disorder. However, I lean more toward viewing seasonal affect as a relationship issue - our relationship with a particular season, how we interact with, perceive, and feel toward it. Post-holiday blues is not dissimilar. Our associations with holidays, and the time that follows influences how we feel. Building and building up to a climax of expectation for a specific period of time each year, only to be followed by a lull can feel like withdrawal or a "hangover." Additionally, the belief that the weeks following the holidays will be sad or lacking plays a major role in how we navigate them. We see similar findings in work by Kelly McConigal regarding our belief about the impact of stress influencing our response to it, and therefore, its impact on mortality. Our belief about how stress impacts us actually has a higher correlation to mortality than the stress itself. (2)


Neuroscience


These emotional slumps you may be experiencing are not just happenstance. Our brains and neural networks are at play. How we judge and respond to emotions actually influences their impact on us. Studies have shown that judging emotions, such as sadness, anger, disappointment, etc. as negative or inappropriate increases anxiety and depression. (1) Conversely, accepting that emotions are normal - all emotions - may set us up to more healthfully and successfully navigate them without the additional weight of depression and anxiety. These findings are not suggesting that we are helpless or powerless to emotions, and that we should just dwell in emotional states that are unpleasant or hurtful. On the contrary, it's perfectly normal to want to change patterns that lead to emotions like sadness, anger, regret. Applying action to our situation leaves us feeling empowered rather than victimized. The nuance, here, is that we accept emotions as temporary, and mindfully approach them as something to navigate, rather than avoid, dread, or resent.


Consider how much energy and effort you put into the holiday season - whether embracing it or avoiding it. Not only can your efforts drain you, when they become consistent patterns, they create automatic associations and reactions associated with emotional memories. For instance, believing that the holidays are overwhelming and stressful year in and year out, strengthens neural pathways in our brains that form strong associations with this time of year. The more we exercise neural pathways, the stronger they become, leaving unused pathways to weaken or die off. So, if the last couple of years have been stressful, you may anticipate this year to be no different, and will eventually begin preparing yourself for stress and overwhelm each time the holidays approach. This process may even be unconscious, meaning you are deliberately thinking or planning to be stressed. The same can be true for those who experience the holidays as positive. We form expectations around this time of year, and without a curious, present-focused mind, we place much of our efforts into meeting these expectations - realistic or not. Regardless of your holiday experience, if you habitually place a heightened amount of energy into the last two months of the year, only to abruptly change your output, you'll likely experience some noticeable shift mood. If you've ever been to a great party, amusement park, sporting event, or concert, recall how you felt during the event compared to coming down from it afterward. You probably notice a difference. Now, imagine that enjoyable event is two months long. Perhaps, you're exhausted, disappointed, sad, even depressed. Let's not leave out relieved; maybe that better describes your emotional experience.


Resolutions


As if we didn't place enough expectation on ourselves for the holidays, we sweeten the deal with larger, perhaps even more unsustainable, expectations for the entire year to come. If you were to take a poll within your social group of how many people meet and sustain their stated New Year resolutions, what percentage do you think would claim to meet them? How many would report these resolutions brought joy, fulfillment, growth?


Often with the best of intentions, we allow ourselves to be indulgent from November through December, anticipating that we will course-correct in January. Do you remember the scientific fact about patterns...? During certain parts of the calendar year, we find motivation to be healthy, whether through a sincere desire to improve our situation, through body shaming, or by some other means. Many people find themselves in a bit of a hamster wheel without even realizing it. The restriction and elimination diets, intense exercise plans, financial commitments to meal plans and gyms, and the often shaming approach we take to reaching our "beach bods" by April or May comes at a cost. Many of the plans people put in place for January are unsustainable. In fact, gyms, diet and meal plans, etc. expect that and plan for it. In many ways, humans are predictable. If you've ever been a member of a gym, compare how crowded the gym was January - May, compared to June and July. Maybe you don't know, because you also stopped going during the summer months, like many Americans.


Recommendations


You'll find the following recommendations to be similar to those proposed while navigating the holidays. As you'll discover in much of life - process over content. An effective and realistic process can be implemented across many areas of content. We simply tweak as needed, rather than having to come up with a brand new approach, strategy, or skillset.


1. Mindfulness: Gently bringing your awareness into the present moment - what is factually happening right now - not only decreases the weight of burden from a lifetime of stories associated to the emotions you're feeling to the specific issue at hand, but allows you better focus your efforts where they are truly needed with strategies that are relevant more than just familiar.

2. Daily meditation: Incorporating a daily meditation practice has been scientifically shown to promote activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area associated with executive functioning. Additionally, studies have shown that daily meditation increases compassion and gratitude while reducing stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Integrating meditation into your daily life doesn't have to be an additional stressor. In fact, you'll likely find that, rather than feeling stressed by adding one more thing to your plate, you'll feel more energized, organized, and focused.

3. Gratitude and Intention setting: I often recommend a daily journal prompt for many clients. If you don't like the sound of journaling, call it a daily log, or whatever you feel better about labeling it. Begin your day by acknowledging one thing/person/experience you are grateful for that day. Try not to recycle from previous days. Sincerely consider what you feel gratitude toward that day, specifically. Second, identify one thing you commit to doing for yourself that day that will bring fulfillment or satisfaction. This is for you. There is no suggestion of placing yourself above anyone else or deliberately gratifying yourself at the expense of others. Instead, integrate this one thing for you; prioritize it. Third, at the end of the day, reflect on your gratitude and intention for that day. Did you do what you intended? If so, how was it for you? If not, what got in the way? Use this language. Being curious about what got in the way is intended to remove shame or blame. Instead, identifying barriers to empower yourself to better navigate them next time.

4. Embrace emotions: One thing that I find disappointing about modern pop-culture psychology is the reference of some emotions as "negative" and others as "positive." The fact is, emotions are emotions. We all experience them. Perhaps, some are more uncomfortable or occur more frequently than others. This classification doesn't make one bad while making another good. Try being curious about the emotion(s) you are experiencing. Notice them without judging them as good or bad, positive or negative. Are they attached to what is actually happening, or a story made up of many experiences brought into this one moment? What do you need in this moment? How might you get that need met? What's the very next action step available to you? Just start. Practice isn't supposed to be perfect. In fact, it's often messy. We gain information, and apply to future attempts.


These recommendations are simply that. They will not necessarily cure what ails you. If you know that what you've been doing isn't working for you, perhaps it's worth trying something else. These recommendations have been effective for many who've tried them. Hopefully, they'll be useful for you.




References



  1. Willroth, E. C., Young, G., Tamir, M., & Mauss, I. B. (2023). Judging emotions as good or bad: Individual differences and associations with psychological health. Emotion, 23(7), 1876–1890. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0001220

  2. McGonigal, K. (2015). The Upside of Stress. Random House. http://books.google.ie/books?id=0mcZBgAAQBAJ&printsec= frontcover&dq= the+


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