The Dopamine Crash: How to avoid the post-holiday slump

December 17, 2015

The months leading up to the end of the year holidays can be euphoric, exhausting, exciting and then… dreadfully depressing. During the build-up, our physiology is in an increased state of arousal, whether we’re anxiously looking for an elusive parking space or elated when finding the perfect gift at 50% off. Neuroscience has known for years that the act of shopping, finding a bargain, and receiving a gift releases dopamine into the brain. It’s even possible to flood your brain with dopamine by simply window shopping.

“I do think that there are a lot of people who rely on the dopamine rush that comes with finding a bargain or something special as a way to add a little bit of oomph to their life. I think that’s probably the most problematic aspect of shopping: that people become almost, I think, addicted to the bargain hunt.” says Kit Yarrow, PhD, chair of the Department of Psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, who has long studied the neuropsychology of consumption.

But why do we feel high when holiday shopping and not grocery shopping? Few of us become giddy when the laundry detergent is on sale at the supermarket. It’s purchasing something novel which gives us the biggest rush. If you buy your spouse the same pair of slippers every holiday, neither of you gets a dopamine surge. It’s the experience of the new that leads to the greatest reward.

Fortunately for most of us, healthy brain neurosensors keep dopamine at manageable levels. But too much of a good thing can lead to a crash, much like withdrawal from a powerful drug. Even the most regulated brain cannot avoid the gloomy effects that a major change in dopamine levels can cause. When all the presents are unwrapped and we’re sitting around in a post-merriment torpor, the departure of all those feel-good chemicals can feel terribly gloomy.

So how to avoid the let-down? Consciously attempt to regulate your own dopamine surges. Here are some suggestions:

Shop with a plan. There’s nothing wrong with finding the perfect gift by accident, but to avoid buyer’s remorse, wait twenty minutes and do something else, then decide whether it’s indeed as perfect as you initially thought. Make a list, decide ahead of time where you’re most likely to find your gift and stick to your route. Try to avoid peak shopping times when crowds can contribute to irritability and poor choices. Again – wait, contemplate, then buy.

Keep it simple. This is especially true if you have children who get inundated with gifts from extended family. Consider holding some gifts back for the days after Christmas rather than contribute to a frenzy of excitement all at once. Take turns opening gifts so that everyone can admire Nana’s hand knit work. Record who gave each gift and involve children in thank-you notes.

Experience something new. Tradition and rituals can be great. But just as dopamine is released when we receive a new thing we can also help ourselves feel good by creating new experiences. Follow up the present opening by doing something new. Go for a walk with the family. Watch something other than It’s a Wonderful Life for the twentieth year in a row. Order in Chinese food instead of stressing over a big dinner. Most of us agree that the holidays are about people more than things. Spend less time focusing on the gifts and more on the relationships.

Counteract stress. Practice gratitude. Dr Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. Each day write down three things that you feel grateful for. Over just a few weeks, their studies showed an increase in feelings of well-being and happiness in the group that kept a gratitude journal as opposed to the groups that recorded their difficulties or simply wrote objectively about their day. If you start this when the leaves begin to fall, chances are you’ll be basking in the warmth of good cheer by the time Santa arrives at the mall.

Every year we strive to make the holidays joyful for our friends and families and ourselves. But that depends largely on our brain chemistry. Neuroscience and psychology can tell us both what’s going on in our bodies and how best to cope with the results. So treat your days as an experiment in self-regulation. You may find you’ll enter into the New Year with more energy, ideas and productivity. Happy Holidays and we’ll see you here again in 2016.