It was a typical day in The Valley – sunny, pleasantly warm, the scent of spring hibiscus in the air, and the vibrations of performance anxiety wafting from my pores. This was the biggest moment of my career – the moment I’d been planning for, preparing for, praying for. Everything that mattered to me – my self-respect, my job prospects, my ability to stop accumulating massive student loans – rested on the results of the next hour. The stately door to the conference room swung open, providing my cue. Entrance stage left. My dissertation defense was a go. Let’s do this thang.
One hour later, I exited through the same door. One brief presentation, summarizing years of investigation, followed by congratulatory shaking of bulky and boney faculty hands and hearty slaps on the back. Presto, I was done with the curriculum aspect of my PhD. This was a momentous occasion.
Within hours – during which nothing had changed but my psyche – I felt the pull of the dreaded downward spiral. This was the letdown and it was coming for me fast and hard.
The letdown effect is a pattern in which people become ill after some kind of stressful event. Everyone I know has been through this at some point. Final exams or basketball playoffs are chased by cold, flu, exhaustion, or the flare up of chronic conditions like crohn’s disease or asthma.
But this physicality doesn’t fully capture the broader experience. A range of both physical and emotional reactions erupt post-event, regardless of the outcome (positive or negative) so new labels have emerged to stretch the definition of the letdown effect. Naming eliminates shaming, so it’s helpful to have descriptors in mind, understanding that these are common – if not universal – experiences. No self-recrimination required!
Consider the psychological smackdown that’s most pronounced after a positive performative event. People describe a hollowness or melancholy, endless sobbing, perpetual exhaustion, guilt, grief or regret. Boxer and London Olympian Alexis Pritchard likens the feeling post-games to a “hot air balloon bursting.” The unique configuration varies, but the phenomenon is definitely a thing.
In the haunting documentary, The Weight of Gold, swimmer Michael Phelps – the most decorated Olympian of all time – describes the crushing depression that follows most elite athletes once the accolades die down. For him, the “hardest fall” followed the 2012 Olympics. “I didn’t want to be in the sport any more…I didn’t want to be alive any more…Win or lose, I felt a dramatic emptiness.”
Even when the stakes are far lower, most people experience a letdown following an important event, especially one that requires considerable dedication and preparation. My doctoral defense was supposed to be a joyous occasion. I was supposed to be ecstatic. In reality, when years worth of effort culminates with a brief presentation and a pat on the back, it feels anticlimactic at best.
Worse, there’s the what-next effect. In my case, I had to jump through bunches of additional hoops: internship, fellowship, the application/interview process for each of those, licensure exams (one or two for each state I’d practice in)…the list went on. Rather than a triumphant moment, my defense just felt like I was checking another box on my endless to-do list.
The what-next effect can take an insidious turn with athletes and performers, a syndrome known as Post-Performance Depression (PPD) – basically, post-show blues. One study of classical musicians revealed themes of self-criticism, exhaustion, emotional volatility, despair, and a sense of loss following a performance. The same effect has been found in performers ranging from dancers to rock stars to olympiads. It may be best thought of as a mourning period for the sense of purpose that had been invested in reaching the performance.(More on PPD symptoms here)
Wait…What? This is Normal???
These feelings are often complicated by a layer of shame (“I’m not supposed to be feeling this. Something’s wrong with me.”) so coaches, teachers, mentors, and friends often neglect to prepare their charges for this experience.
No one warned me that my feelings post-defense would be … ummm … complicated. But my predecessors knew because they’d gone through the same thing, which they shared, chagrined, on hearing of my distress. Now, I prepare everyone – my students, friends, and colleagues – because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The Letdown Lean In
It’s time to be vocal. Let’s usher the letdown effect and its bedfellows out of the closet.
But how do we lean in?
Without belaboring the point, the obvious antidotes are planning and preparation, positive self-talk, rest and relaxation balanced by social support, and focusing on the journey rather than the outcome (more details here). All of these interventions are critical to well-being, but the one I rarely see discussed is acceptance – the actual leaning in.
In mindfulness meditation, we notice what’s present (thoughts, feelings, and information from our senses) without judging or trying to change what’s there. You don’t have to meditate to do this! Just turn off the external distractions, turn down the internal self-judgment (for a moment, at least), and tune in to the feelings bubbling up. This is the highest form of self-love and self-care, welcoming all our bits and pieces to the table.
While the natural instinct is to push pain away, it rarely works. Denial is a short-term solution providing momentary relief, but it doesn’t address the underlying pain. That small voice has something to say. It’s your job to listen.
When my mood started to spiral, I reached out to friends who had already run the gauntlet. They normalized the situation by sharing what they’d been through. The hopeful fact that they’d survived lightened my mood. Every taut muscle in my body melted and I practically heard my mental gears downshift. I went to bed. I slept ten hours. I got a massage. I hiked the Palo Alto hills with friends and we shared yummy meals. And, finally, I was ready to celebrate on full tilt, able to bring my joy to the occasion.Now, when I see a high-risk letdown period on the horizon, I create a transition plan. Part of my prep is making room for whatever feelings emerge and greeting them like old (if annoying) friends.They’re part of me and part of my process. Befriending and comforting them is the letdown lean in.