New Year’s Blues

Does the end of the year get you down?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 19, 2008
4 min read

Does this depressing conversation sound like the one you have with yourself sometime between Thanksgiving and New Year's, year after year?

"I didn't take off that 15 pounds."

"I didn’t make as much money as I said I would."

"I didn't get that promotion or switch jobs."

"I'm hopeless."

While some people look forward to New Year’s parties and resolutions, others dread this traditional time to take stock and look back on the past year’s accomplishments – or lack thereof.

If you're mildly or moderately depressed already – or perhaps suffer from depression in winter -- all this taking stock of yourself can make things worse, especially if you tell yourself you never measure up.

Here, experts tell WebMD how to understand what may be behind your urge to do become blue and self-critical around the new year – and how to resist the New Year’s blues this time.

To look back at the year and what you have done is natural to a degree, says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, professor of psychology at Yale University who has researched depression and the habit of rumination -- going over and over your problems and feelings without taking any action to overcome or solve them.

In fact, at the new year, it's difficult not to reassess at least a bit, says Nolen-Hoeksema, the author of Women Who Think Too Much. Surf the net, turn on the television or radio, and there they are -- all those "year-in-review" stories.

"The media goes over and over what happened this year," she says. So it's understandable, to some degree, that many of us do, too.

Soon after the year-in-review shows comes talk about New Year's resolutions -- and any talk about making resolutions invariably means focusing on your shortcomings, says Edward Abramson, PhD, professor of psychology emeritus at California State University Chico and author of Body Intelligence and Emotional Eating.

To make matters worse, the talk about resolution-making follows a host of holiday occasions -- whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza -- that rarely live up to expectations, Abramson adds. And some people may blame themselves for that, too.

If you're already depressed, you may rate yourself and your accomplishments lower than others would, Nolen-Hoeksema says.

If you find yourself assessing and reassessing the year, becoming more and more depressed, you may be a ruminator. Women are more likely than men to have this habit, Nolen-Hoeksema says.

In her research, Nolen-Hoeksema has focused on "ruminators." She describes ruminators as those who go over and over their problems, either in their own mind or by discussing them with others, but have no clear plan to solve the issues. She has found:

  • Those who ruminate also tend to have negative coping styles, criticize themselves unduly and be pessimistic. Ruminating and depression often go hand-in-hand.
  • Recognizing when to stop ruminating is crucial. "Everyone ruminates some," she says. The real difficulty arises, she says, when you realize all the thinking and rethinking about a problem or issue is not getting you anywhere or is making you feel worse -- and still, you can't quit. "People who get stuck in rumination think there is going to be insight by keeping on thinking about it," she says. "They may have more trouble [than others] shifting their attention [to other topics]."
  • Depression can make ruminating worse. If you are already in a depressed mood and get started on a rumination cycle, you'll tend to focus on the worst aspects of a problem, she says. "Rumination and depression are a toxic mix." The rumination feeds the depression and vice versa. The process is so reciprocal, says Nolen-Hoeksema, that it's difficult to identify sometimes which started it all.

For those stuck in the end-of-the-year scorecard exercise, Abramson and Nolen-Hoeksema offer these suggestions to get out of the rut:

  • Anticipate. If you've been in this ruminating route before, make a plan to minimize it this year --before the end of the year arrives.
  • Ask why, not "Why me?" When the rumination starts to surface, don't dwell on your shortcomings. Instead, think a bit about why some things you wanted to happen this year didn't.
  • Shift into action. Instead of moaning or moping, ask yourself: "What is a small thing I can do to change the situation?"
  • Get active or distract yourself. When you fall back into the ruminating habit, walk around the block, go to the gym, or head for the mall. Physical activity works, Nolen-Hoeksema says. "Within 10 minutes you are feeling better," she says. "It's hard to ruminate and shift to action at the same time." Distraction works, too, she has found in her studies. When she asked some ruminators to think about something else other than the problem, they weren't as adept later at recalling negative events as those who weren't distracted from their ruminating.
  • Be specific. If you decide to make a New Year's resolution, be reasonable and decide exactly what you will do, Abramson says. "Not a global resolution about making yourself a wonderful person," he says. Instead: "I won't yell at the kids." Or, instead of "I will lose 20 pounds," try: "When I know they are having doughnuts at work, I will bring fruit instead."
  • Examine your expectations. Decide if they are realistic. If they aren't, that doesn't mean giving up on the goal, says Abramson. Instead, break it into multiple steps.