“The Holidays,” generally defined as the period from Thanksgiving through New Years, can be an emotional roller coaster. We’re expected to be (and would like to be) filled with joy, cheer and love for all living beings 24 hours a day. Sorry. It’s just not possible.

In reality, the holidays can be, and frequently are, a difficult time. Expectations are often not met, loneliness is intensified in the absence of family and friends, stepfamilies must cook up complicated schedules, and relaxation is out of the question.

The Best-Laid Plans

I try to plan early. I buy gifts throughout the year so I’m a few steps ahead. But this year, a friend with a simple concern caught me off guard. Thus, my story begins:

It was mid-December. The countdown had begun. I knew the drill and I was in control. My living room was littered with wrapped, half-wrapped and unwrapped presents. I only had six people left to shop for. Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had been viewed by millions of expectant children. Stores and malls were jammed. I had parties to attend and plans for New Years. I was ready.

The Question

Suddenly, my organized approach to holiday preparation was thrown into a state of complete disarray when my friend Jessie called with a question I couldn’t answer.

“When,” she asked me, “do the holidays actually end?” She paused, then continued. “I mean, does a symbolic guillotine come crashing down on January 2nd? Are the holidays over when my Christmas tree dries up and its needles fall off in clumps? After I stop seeing champagne bottles in recycling bins?” She sighed into the phone. “What I really want to know is, when am I allowed to feel lousy again?”

Although it was impossible for me to give her an exact date when she was permitted to stop smiling, or when she could stop giving money compulsively to Salvation Army kettles, I told her I’d do a little footwork and come up with a response.

Ringing In and Wringing Out

It turns out that “post-holiday blues” is the rarely-acknowledged stepchild of the better known “holiday blues.” While hundreds of websites, pamphlets and articles offer solutions for tempering depressions that occur during the holidays, the intense bouts of depression suffered by many after the holidays are frequently neglected. What happens after the packages are opened, the eggnog is finished and the leftover turkey is eaten in one final sandwich? Many people are left with literal and figurative hangovers. The cause? While alcohol may play a part, the larger contributors are unmet expectations, unrealistic resolutions, and a return of loneliness and guilt about overindulgence. This being the case, what’s next?

When I asked a colleague, a Boston-based therapist, his perception of available resources for dealing with “post-holiday blues,” he shook his head and commented, “We really don’t have much good research to draw from. Nevertheless, it’s something important we need to be aware of and address.”

In his online article, “Give Yourself Permission to Feel: How to Lessen Post-Holiday Blues,” Richard O’Connor, a psychotherapist with offices in New York and Connecticut, wrote, “Clinics like ours see many more depressed people after the holidays. My theory is that most people put on their character armor a little tighter at this time of year and do everything they can to get through a stressful time, then allow themselves to fall apart a little bit afterwards.”

If this is true, then why isn’t more attention paid to post-holiday depression? Perhaps, as both Jessie and Mr. O’Connor imply, we feel we’re not allowed to express sadness during a “festive” time, so we wait to crash afterwards.

The problem Jessie raises is an important one. If we don’t feel allowed to express sadness (much less experience it) during the holidays, how long is the statute of limitations?

Sounding the Alarm

First, an alarm bell should be sounded any time we hear someone say they don’t believe they are “allowed to feel,” as Jessie indicated. We are entitled to our emotions, however “out of synch” they may seem. The time of year does not matter.

Perhaps what is most important to recognize is that, while the holidays can be compared to a roller coaster, a roller coaster ride is many things: fun, exciting, scary, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous. Instead of fearing the depth of emotions present during the holidays and dreading the drop when they’re over, the best approach is balance. Embrace this time of year with as much honesty as possible, understanding that moments of intense sadness, extraordinary joy and every emotion in between may occur.

The Response

After doing my research, this is what I said to Jessie, and what I would recommend to others: Remember, our lives consist of more than the month between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. The richness and complexity of life happens every day. There’s no reason to feel badly that you feel badly, and no reason to force your feelings to be different from what they are.

Prepare yourself emotionally for the holidays, and prepare for their aftermath. Try to maintain a balance in your life during the hectic holiday rush, and you’ll have an easier time maintaining that balance as you proceed into the new year. Don’t wait to see empty champagne bottles. Take down your Christmas tree before it turns to mulch in the living room, and enjoy yourself as much as possible, without the need to nail a smile to your face. Just be you! And if that means feeling lousy, go ahead. You won’t be the only one. You might even share a laugh with someone else who didn’t get her or his wish fulfilled for a thoroughly joyous holiday season. In fact, you’re sure to have plenty of company sharing that laugh!