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Post-holiday blues - the psychology of endings and new beginnings

Feeling sad, apathetic, deflated, or irritable is not uncommon after a holiday period, especially Christmas. And of course, there are many reasons which contribute to post-holiday blues such as emotional tiredness, coming back to “grey reality” in contrast with holiday festivities, and different diets.

Before Christmas, we also engage in goal-oriented behaviours which boost our mood and motivation and which, inevitably, leave us feeling empty once the goal has been achieved. In almost all of the above, there is an element of loss, change and the new beginning. And this is what I am going to talk about in this article— the psychology of endings and new beginnings.

I am a mental health scientist and in my previous article on tradition and rituals, I talked about the Christmas/winter holidays being part of the universal celebration of the winter solstice. It is the time of the year when days are the shortest and through the festivities of this period, we can celebrate the end of the dark days and the “return of the sun” and the longer days — the new year awakening. But why do I bring this up? It is because the rituals help us deal with change. From an anthropological point of view, ceremonies and rituals help acknowledge changes in a structured and less threatening way. They facilitate the transition between what is gone and what is ahead.

Changes and transitions

Endings can be painful as they bring about feelings of loss and grief, in particular when we lose someone close to us. In this context, prolonged grief (lasting over a year) is currently considered a new psychiatric diagnosis from which we might need time and professional help to recover. Livia Dyring writes about the grieving process when losing a loved one in her recent piece for Inspire the Mind. However, in this article, I would like to focus on loss in a slightly different context.

Isca Salzberger-Wittenberg, a psychotherapist, in her book Experiencing endings and beginnings talks about how important it is to acknowledge and work through the loss, to be able to embrace the here and now. What I found interesting is that she talks about the loss being ever present at different stages of our lives and it doesn’t always mean the loss of a person.

It can mean the loss of a concept or a belief, e.g., loss of childhood, loss associated with changing schools, jobs, cities, and countries, or in the context of our article — the loss of the holiday period and all the perks that come with it. The author talks about such losses more in the context of change — the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

Drawing on anthropology research, William Bridges, proposed “Bridges Transition Model” which breaks down the stages of each transition into an ending, a neutral zone, and a new beginning. Each stage brings its own challenges. As we experience an ending, we might feel shocked, sad, yearning for what is lost, or angry, just as we do when grieving, until eventually we come to terms with the loss and accept it. Then comes the neutral zone, and according to Bridges, it is a breeding ground stage for creativity before embracing the “new”. It is also the stage when we experience confusion and anxiety about the unknown at its most. This is followed by the last stage — a new beginning, which involves identifying “new roles” and setting them into motion. This stage can bring a mix of feelings from excitement to anxiety about the new, and unknown.

Making space for new beginnings

Although it is in human nature to experience discomfort and anxiety in letting go and opening ourselves to the new and unknown, research has shown that allowing ourselves to experience endings makes us happier and more engaged with what’s happening around us in that moment.

Kristin Layous, in her study, asked participants to live their lives as if it was their last month in the cities they lived in. She then measured their well-being in comparison with the control group — a group without any intervention. Participants who imagined this was their last month in the city, reported improvements in their well-being as the month progressed. They were engaging in meaningful and satisfactory interactions with others and were more effective in making plans and choices compared with the control group. By acknowledging the approaching ending, they were more open to embracing the here and now.

According to Laura Carstensen’s “socioemotional selectivity theory”, when we are faced with endings, we opt out for activities that feel good and are meaningful to us in the present moment, as Kira M. Newman says in her article. It helps us focus on the here and now. Of course, in real life, we need to find the balance between the short-term (the here and now) and long-term rewards, and these studies highlight that we might need a little “push” to find that balance.

Sad is not bad

Staying in touch with our feelings, and acknowledging them are the pillars of mental well-being. I think it’s very important to highlight the fact that we all sometimes feel sad and that’s a normal and adaptive response to the environment around us. It’s ok to feel sad or anxious when we face changes.

And apparently, sometimes, we can even find comfort in sad endings (and not because we are all secretly monsters)! Studies show that watching sad movies increases endorphin levels — a hormone that makes us feel happy and makes us want to bond with others more. The authors talk about the power of shared experience, whether that would be laughing or crying, that brings us closer. This makes sense in the evolutionary context where increasing our support network in difficult times might help us survive. Watching sad movies also increases a sense of involvement, which can then lead to a joyful experience.

Bringing it all together, any change, even if it seems trivial, just like what we experience once our holiday is over, can bring about feelings of sadness and anxiety, and that’s normal and expected. Just like trees shedding their leaves for winter, so that they can blossom in spring, accepting feeling sad in response to loss can open the door to grow afterwards.

However, sometimes, we might “get stuck” in feeling low and anxious for a prolonged period of time, for different reasons. And if that is the case for you, it is always good to check in with your GP or any other mental health professional, and ask for support.


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