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Why do I feel depressed in the New Year?

Most of us partake in the annual Christmas and New Year celebrations and rituals, which include reflecting on the year and creating resolutions for the one ahead. Although these traditions can be enjoyable, there are many reasons why they may leave us feeling depressed.

Post-holiday blues

The events of Christmas and New Year can leave us feeling down, and last January was no exception to this trend. In fact, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found January 2021 to be the saddest on record after happiness levels among the general population fell below the previous lowest figures of 2012. Approximately 21% of adults in Great Britain experienced some form of depression - over double the rate reported before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Why are so many people experiencing symptoms of depression as Christmas celebrations cease and a new year begins?

SAD and New Year

Dr Sandra Wheatley, psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS), points out that: "If you are vulnerable to depression, the timing of New Year is rotten. It's the darkest period of the year, with New Year's Day falling near to the shortest day and longest night."

These short, dark days in winter can cause some people to experience 'winter depression' or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This occurs when the lack of sunlight triggers changes in certain brain chemicals and hormones, making us feel low. Although not everyone develops the full symptoms of SAD, many people lack energy and feel low from time to time during winter.

On top of the seasonal influences that can trigger depression, the Christmas and New Year period is often filled with high expectations, reflection and New Year resolutions. This combination can take a physical and mental toll.

Reflection and New Year resolutions

New Year is seen as a time to take stock and reflect on the past year, which can be difficult if you feel that you haven't achieved everything you wanted to. This tendency to annually measure our success and the pressure to set new 'goals' or resolutions can be upsetting and stressful.

This is only made worse when circumstances outside of our control have a significant and negative impact on our lives, which has been the case over the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19: looking back and ahead

We are now in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and after another year of widespread cases, multiple lockdowns, and social limitations, everyone is hoping for a return to 'normal' life. However, recent Whitehall reports predicting three optimistic, middle and pessimistic scenarios for the end of the pandemic may be leaving people feeling concerned for the year to come..

While in the summer, Professor Jean-Francois Delfraissy estimated that the global threat could be cleared by late 2022-23, Whitehall researchers state that the likeliest scenario (also known as the middle scenario) may see us using further lockdown measures until 2023-24. Although much less likely, this could even be as far ahead as 2026 - as laid out in the worst-case scenario.

Either way, this may severely dampen the spirits of all those thinking about their plans and hopes for the New Year.

Loneliness

Unfortunately, loneliness is often accentuated over Christmas and New Year, when expectations to spend time with family and friends are high. Despite this, research by mental health charity Mind suggests that over one third of us are too embarrassed to admit we are lonely over the Christmas season.

The impact of COVID-19 on isolation and loneliness has also been significant: "Over this year, many people who are more vulnerable to depression and low moods have had to work from home and have had to deal with the loss of human contact," says Dr Wheatley. "Getting outside and staying active can help, but over winter this isn't always possible."

Holiday season stress and exhaustion

While social isolation can leave us feeling lonely, a calendar filled up with Christmas and New Year social events may also negatively impact our mental health. A string of social obligations can easily lead to Christmas burnout, causing financial stress, triggering social anxiety, and resulting in physical and mental exhaustion by the time New Year rolls around.

Alcohol

Often exacerbating this effect is alcohol, a substance which is very much ingrained within our festive culture, from family gatherings to Christmas work parties where one third of people feel the pressure from peers to drink. Dr Wheatley warns of the dangers of heavy drinking:

"Alcohol is not an ideal drug for those who have a tendency toward depression or anxiety as it can make these feelings much worse. For many people, including those who aren't as vulnerable to clinical mental health issues, too much alcohol can lead to physical and mental exhaustion.

Alcohol disrupts our bodies' sleep patterns, and continuous heavy drinking will leave us constantly tired, which in turn feeds into mental exhaustion. Entering January absolutely exhausted makes anxiety and depression a much more likely outcome."

Grief

The Christmas and New Year period is a time of coming together. While this is a positive and well-intentioned message, it's challenging for those dealing with the loss of a loved one. The traditions and memories associated with the season can make grief all the more consuming over the Christmas season.

Facing a whole new year when we are dealing with grief can also be hugely upsetting and overwhelming. While people going through a bereavement are encouraged to deal with their emotions day by day, New Year encourages everyone to reflect on their lives - the past year and the year ahead. Unfortunately, this perspective can make dealing with loss much harder to process.

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