We’ve all been there. We plan an event, be it a wedding, a night out, a party or a family trip. We look forward to it for days, for weeks, sometimes for months, and the second it’s over (or maybe the next day), we find ourselves overwhelmed with feelings of sadness and dread.

The phenomenon is called a “happiness hangover” by some in the mental health field, and it’s well founded in biology. When we experience joy or pleasure, what’s actually happening is that our brains produce feel-good chemicals, namely endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. It’s our body rewarding us for doing things that make us more likely to survive and reproduce, like eating, having sex, and being around other familiar humans (safety in numbers was a very real thing in prehistoric times).

As we’ve evolved beyond just trying to survive, we’ve come to produce these same chemicals for activities we perceive as pleasurable or somehow life-affirming.

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A whirlwind of wonder and joy

For those of us who celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, The Winter Solstice, New Year’s and/or Kwanzaa, and even for those who may not, the last half of December tends to be a time filled with parties, get-togethers, rich food, spending time with family and friends, and often taking time off work and maybe traveling. There is lots to look forward to, we might feel the excitement of giving or receiving a special gift or two, and it’s often a time when we look at our children and marvel at their capacity for innocent wonder.

The holidays are generally seen as a joyful time and many of us spend months getting ready. Shopping, wrapping gifts, writing and sending greeting cards, decorating the house and preparing food a plenty. It all leads up to a crescendo of eating, music, laughter, gift giving and I love yous that is truly wonderful for most, but also has a number of downsides, especially for those amongst us who struggle with mental health.

The big question for many of us who love the holidays is “What do I do when they’re over?”, and we’ll come to that. But the holidays themselves can present challenges that, amid the excitement, we don’t always talk about.

The holidays and mental health

One challenge of the holidays is that of over-stimulation and anxiety. Many people who suffer from anxiety disorders, and certain other conditions, tend to find that all the same things that other people love about the holidays cause them stress and make them want to run in the other direction. Big crowds, bright lights, loud noises, lots of kissing and hugging. For some, these are not things to look forward to. They are things to avoid, and if that’s not possible, to survive.

We sometimes forget that the things that bring us joy might be sources of negative feelings for others. During the holidays, we should be extra-sensitive to these potential differences, and avoid shaming those who opt out of holiday parties, calling them grinches or scrooges. They’re not necessarily grumpy or anti-social people. They may just prefer their parties smaller, their malls less crowded and their lights not quite so bright. Be compassionate. This can be your Christmas gift to them.

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The holidays can take a toll – on everyone

Even those of us who wouldn’t self-identify as struggling with our mental health can find the holidays difficult. Some people who are struggling financially may still feel pressure to buy lavish gifts. For others who may have recently lost a loved one, the holidays can be a reminder of good times that seem like they will never come again. Or the holidays can take on a negative connotation at times simply because we have work or there are other obligations that prevent us from being with the ones we love.

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Indeed, the holidays are not as simple as we’d like to believe. Just like weddings, graduations and dream vacations, Christmas brings with it a lot of complex feelings, not all of them good. It’s easy to assume we have no choice but to love this holiday just because everyone else seems to. But we can choose to participate in the festivities as much or as little as makes us feel comfortable. Even if you feel like you must take part, there are ways to make it easier.

And even for those who love the lights and the parties and the music and the time with family, there’s always the question of what to do when it’s all over. After two weeks of excitement, you can be forgiven for feeling a little bummed out the week after new year’s when you’re working on reports at the office.

When you know better…

The reason for the happiness hangover is the same reason that people become addicted to cocaine. The natural “happy drugs” that course through our veins throughout the holidays have stopped flowing, and so even if we’re feeling pretty good afterward, it just can’t compare to the raw exhilaration of opening presents, staying up late and eating lots of sweets. The other thing is that we put so much planning and expectation into the holidays that when they’re over, we can be left with the feeling that there’s nothing left to look forward to.

If you’re a holiday lover and are feeling a little blue about taking down the Christmas tree, there are a few things you can try that should make you feel better.

The first is to relive the good times, whether it be by looking at pictures, talking with friends, or just remembering. There’s no reason the warm feelings can’t stay a while. And while you’re remembering, try being grateful too. For the time off, for the wonderful food, for the opportunity to reconnect with loved ones, and for whatever other blessings you’ve been given this year. Not everyone is so lucky, and mental health experts agree that gratitude is an excellent way to raise your spirits.

Last, if you’re feeling down because the holidays are over, try focusing on your next project. A trip? An anniversary party for your parents? A class you’ve been meaning to take? Like all good things, the holidays must end, but you can carry the good feeling with you into some other endeavor that may turn out to be just as exciting. That way, like the Sesame Street gang says, you can keep Christmas with you all through the year.