Depression in the Wake of Milestones

Depression in the Wake of Milestones

Maybe you’ve recently completed the marathon you’ve been training six months for, published the book you’ve spent two years writing, received the degree you’ve been working towards your entire academic career. You’ve crossed the finish line, seen your work in print, walked across that stage and threw your cap into the air.

Now the crowd has dissipated, the reviews have stopped rolling in, and your grad cap is lost in the sea of scattered polyester and acetate.

Everyone else is moving on, but you’re still standing there trying to relish in the glory of your achievement.

Or, if you’re like some people, maybe that euphoric high of achieving the milestone doesn’t reach its peak upon completion. For some, the fun is in the challenge, in the anxiety of wondering if you’ll ever make it to see the finish line at all.

Which doesn’t sound like an inherently bad thing, but it can leave you feeling guilty if you find yourself not sharing the same excitement as the people around you. If people come to watch you cross the finish line, for example, or send you pictures of them holding your book or clearing a spot for it on their shelf. You don’t want to seem bummed in comparison or make everyone wonder if something is amiss, so you put on a face.

This can lead to questions like: What’s wrong with me? Am I depressed? Why am I not happy?

Why am I not happy?

Why am I not happy?

You know, the kind of questions that leave you spiraling if you continue to keep everything bottled up.

In fact, even looking for answers online doesn’t come up with much. When I turned to Google for answers, I had maybe three articles to choose from. The rest were just the search engine zeroing in on the word “milestone” which left me with a bunch of articles about the stages of being a child.

Which, while helpful to new parents, I myself am not one. No where close. My dog is my child, and he surpassed all his major milestones in the second month I had him when he conquered potty training.

So why do some of us face an almost, if not explicitly, depressive episode in the wake of a major achievement?

Understanding Why

Ron Friedman describes the sensation in his article for Harvard Business Review, “Staying Motivated After a Major Achievement” where he writes, “When we think about achieving a major goal, we picture the exhilaration of reaching new heights. What we often fail to anticipate, however, is that once we’ve scaled that mountain, it can be surprisingly chilly on the other side. After a period of massive productivity we have to revert back to life as usual and settle back into an established workplace routine.

For one thing, it’s because of the emotional letdown of going from an exciting, challenging, or pressure-filled situation to one that’s considerably less demanding. High-stress situations and the adrenaline rush they produce can be addictive. When the constant sense of urgency we’ve adapted to comes to an abrupt halt, we experience withdrawal.”

Friedman goes on to say that, for many of us workaholics, to be fully engaged we need to “experience an ongoing sense of growth on the job.” Which basically boils down to the idea that we view reaching a milestone as a setback instead of an achievement, because there’s no longer obstacles in place to challenge us further.

He then goes on to talk about something that I should have recognized immediately, if not for the fact that we are often blind to our own shortcomings. In this case, many of us fail to recognize the symptoms of burnout.

Burnout, essentially, is reaching our peak exhaustion levels when it comes to our emotional, physical, and mental states. Often, by the time many of us reach our goals, we’re so stressed that we’re ready for it all to just be over with. You don’t want to take a victory lap or attend a book release party because maybe you’re antsy to start the ‘Next Big Thing,’ or maybe you simply want to wipe your hands of the stress that comes from big projects and simply catch up on some much-needed sleep.

(Sidenote: A deeper dive—with some tailored search filters—led me to an article that introduced me to the arrival fallacy, which, Forbes explains, operates under the assumption that if you’re working towards a goal, you will reach the goal, which preemptively triggers the brain’s reward center. This feeling persists and adjusts along your journey, until it’s no longer stimulating your brain enough by the time you reach your goal. In a way it’s kind of like burnout, but instead of being exhausted at your finish line, you’re simply bored instead).

In the aftermath of a large milestone, if you find yourself feeling underwhelmed, first understand that your feelings are not not normal. If you don’t feel like attending a party in your honor or feel the adrenaline rush that comes with finishing a big project, don’t simmer in it. My advice would be to take a much needed break, no matter what that timeline looks like, and then set your sights on the Next Big Thing.

Life is long, and after a time it’s on us to create our own milestones to keep us from being caught in a monotonous cycle. Or worse, finding yourself one day waking up from autopilot.

Don’t let the depressive episode following one accomplishment keep you from reaching for that high again.

So have your moments, and then sit down at your desk to write or lace up your running shoes and go get it, whatever it is that you’re running towards.

There’s always something to work towards.

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