Well, as it turns out, this is totally normal, according to mental health professionals. “The start of a new year can be a difficult time for a number of reasons,” says David Tzall, PsyD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in treating various mental health issues, including mood disorders, trauma, and relationship challenges.
He explains that while the start of January is often a time of reflection and renewal, it can also bring a range of other emotions—like sadness, grief, and stress. So, if you’re not really feeling the transformative spirit that everyone else is, that’s okay, it might be that you have a bit more on your plate emotionally.
If you’ve experienced loss or grief in the past year
Grief, in its many forms, can be particularly poignant at the turn of a new year. “[It] can be a difficult time for those who have experienced loss or significant changes in the past year,” Dr. Tzall shares. “Others may be struggling with feelings of loneliness or isolation, particularly if they are unable to be with loved ones.”
January can also be a sign that we’re moving on from things, which can bring up complicated emotions. “A new year can be a period of transition and people may not handle this transition well,” says Dr. Tzall. He explains that transitions can bring about a sense of sadness, mourning, or longing—especially if it feels like you’re leaving something behind. “While a new year to some may bring feelings of renewal it can also bring about feelings of sadness for what is gone and won’t be back.”
If you struggle with depression or anxiety year-round
All of the messaging around making changes to your life can be difficult for anyone, but especially someone with anxiety, says Joanna Hardis, LISW-S, a therapist in private practice specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders and OCD. People with anxiety or depression may put too much pressure on themselves, which ends up making them feel sad at the start of a new year instead of hopeful.
When it comes to new year’s resolutions, Hardis says most people find themselves focusing on the outcome, rather than the process. “When we focus exclusively on the outcome, we set ourselves up to fail. We also run the risk of pushing ourselves prematurely and then feeling like a failure when they inevitably don’t go well.”
If you have trouble dealing with big changes
People who struggle with their mental health may also notice that the changes of the new year can make it more difficult to manage these feelings. For example, difficult situations and memories, social isolation, and disrupted routines of the holidays can be extremely triggering or distressing for those with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), explains Dr. Tzall. “These individuals may already feel emotionally depleted and have compromised abilities to cope with change and negative emotions,” he continues.
These feelings can be even stronger for people who struggle with certain types of anxiety— like perfectionism or needing a sense of control—because as Hardis shares, “any time there’s less structure, changes to schedules and expectations presents a potential for more anxiety.”
5 strategies to help if you feel sad at the start of a new year
So, how can you safeguard your mental health during big periods of transition, like when you feel sad at the start of a new year? These strategies can help you navigate through the difficult emotions that crop up.
1. Practice self-care
Self-care is always important, but it’s even more important to practice this time of year. “Make time for activities that nourish your mind, body, and spirit… like getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising, or engaging in activities you enjoy,” recommends Dr. Tzall. “Make time for activities that bring you happiness and a sense of accomplishment, whether it's a hobby, volunteering, or something else entirely.”
And Hardis recommends one specific step for people who find themselves overwhelmed by the pressure of the new year: “Limit social media, since it’s filled with “New Year, New You” crap,” she says.
2. Connect with others
During a time when it seems everyone around you is gathering with family and friends, it’s important to try and find time to nurture your own social connections. “It can be helpful to reach out to friends, family, or a support group for social support and connection,” Dr. Tzall shares. This doesn’t have to be in-person, either—there are plenty of communities that offer virtual socializing, as well.
3. Feel your feelings
Another important strategy Hardis recommends is normalizing and accepting all of our feelings, even the ones that don’t feel so great. “Remember, feelings are temporary events, like indigestion,” she shares. “We wouldn’t judge ourselves for having indigestion, so it would behoove us to do the same for other internal events. Practice observing our internal experience instead of reacting to it.”
4. Be self-compassionate
Self-compassion is the idea of being kind, understanding, and compassionate towards ourselves during difficult moments, and a good place to start is by removing some of that new year pressure. “It's okay to take things one day at a time and set small, achievable goals,” says Dr. Tzall. “Remember that it's okay to make mistakes or not be perfect and that it's important to take care of your own needs.”
5. Take time to ground yourself
Finally, when the changes of the season begin to feel heavy, it can be helpful to practice shifting your perspective. “When we’re in the thick of it, we’re so locked into the feeling that we lose perspective,” Hardis shares. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or sad at the start of a new year, she recommends taking a moment to zoom out and ground yourself. Bring your awareness to the present and focus on how things look, feel, or sound.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed in your body, Dr. Tzall recommends giving active relaxation a try. “Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation can help you manage stress and cope with difficult emotions,” he says.
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