Completed (and aced!) a major project? Moved into your dream home after an epic search? Crossed the marathon finish line thanks to tons of time training? You should be riding high and happy to take a well-deserved break. But instead, you're just sort of bummed. What gives?
While you might be wondering what's wrong with you, it's pretty normal to feel sad or listless after completing a major event or milestone. So normal, in fact, that mental health professionals have multiple terms for it, including the let-down effect, the arrival fallacy or the achievement hangover, to name a few.
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A case of the let-down effect is fairly easy to spot: If you notice sudden drop in your mood or daily functioning shortly after any kind of big, long-awaited event — think sadness, irritability, exhaustion, disappointment or even a lack or purpose — you're in the thick of it, says Lana Lipe, LCSW, owner of Honu Therapy Services in Honolulu.
The good news: There are ways to manage the post-event blues and even prevent them, starting with these expert-recommended strategies.
Why Does the Let-Down Effect Happen?
Feeling a little down after a big event that you were really looking forward to or put a lot of effort towards might seem counterintuitive. But when you think about it more deeply, the shift in mood actually makes a lot of sense. "We go from having a purpose, direction and a focus on problem-solving to then not having the same level of mental stimulations our brains crave," Lipe says.
There are biochemical changes at play too. The pleasure-seeking neurotransmitter dopamine is activated when we seek out and pursue goals, explains Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC, owner of Evolve Counseling in Phoenix. "When we think about the process that goes into a big event, including the preparation and anticipation of the event outcomes, it comes along with a lot of dopamine release," she says. When the actual event happens, we're also flooded with other feel-good hormones like endorphins and serotonin. Yup, riding high indeed!
Those neurotransmitters and hormones take a dip once you've reached the finish line, though. "All those biochemicals that had been flooding your body with excitement and anticipation start to deplete and are not as active," Fedrick says. As a result, your mood can take a nosedive too.
How to Cope With Post-Event Sadness
Knowing a crash is coming may in itself help you manage your feelings. "By recognizing this is what's taking place, you can normalize the experience and acknowledge that it's a common, natural response," Fedrick says. Once you understand what you're going through, you can also take steps to process those feelings and give yourself an emotional boost. Some things to try:
Open up to a trusted friend or family member who will validate your feelings. Or do some private soul-searching or journaling, recommends Fedrick. Sometimes just letting your emotions out can make them feel less oppressive.
2. Remember Your Worth Isn't Tied to Productivity
Make it a point to find joy in things that aren't tied to goals, checklists or deadlines, Lipe says. Meet a friend for coffee just to catch up, take a walk after dinner (exercise is a natural mood-booster!) to watch the sun set or just sit outside and listen to the birds chirp.
"Your worth and value as a person isn't conditional, nor is it something you only deserve when you are producing something," Lipe adds.
3. Reflect on the Things That Brought You Joy
Rather than dwell on how sad you are that the event is over, shift your focus to the positive. "Think about what brought you joy, what you feel proud of and what you would want to repeat in the future," Fedrick suggests.
4. Consider the Value of Breaks
Just like it's important to include rest days in an exercise plan, you need mental rest days or periods where you're not actively working towards achieving something. In fact, a break will help you be at your best when you take on another challenge. "Rest and breaks are critical to your function, creativity, overall wellbeing," Lipe says.
5. Look Toward the Next Thing
Setting your sights on a new goal can be a welcome distraction, and you can even get started before the event ends.
"Start thinking about and planning your next event prior to this particular event taking place so that you have somewhere already identified to shift your time and energy after the event is over," Fedrick says. Just be sure to build some time in for a break in between the end of one thing and the beginning of the next. Remember, rest is good for you!
When to Seek Help for Post-Event Sadness
It's normal to feel stressed or sad from time to time, especially after completing something big. But a mental health professional can help you manage if the feelings begin to seem overwhelming. If you're still feeling low after a few weeks or if your emotions are getting in the way of your ability to function, a therapist can offer the support you need, Lipe says.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.