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Sunday neurosis or weekend blues – why can’t I enjoy my free time?

“Wochend’ und Sonnenschein”, but you are dominated by frustration and gloomy thoughts? Although the weekend, according to the Comedian Harmonists, should mean pure relaxation, you may know the feeling of feeling anxious, sad or depressed on weekends, especially on Sundays. Find out what is known so far about the causes of the “weekend blues,” a psychodynamic approach, and what you can do about it in this article.

What is Sunday neurosis?

This phenomenon was described more than 100 years ago by the psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, who noticed in his patients a conspicuous recurrence of psychosomatic complaints, such as headaches and gastrointestinal problems on Sundays, which “often thoroughly spoiled the young people’s only day off” (Ferenczi, 1919).

In general, neurosis is understood to be a mental disorder that cannot be traced to an organic cause. In psychoanalytic teaching, neuroses are caused by (partly) unconscious, inner-psychic or interpersonal conflicts. In psychosomatic and psychiatric medicine, the term mental disorder or depression has become accepted, but the term “Sunday neurosis” continues to persist, describing low mood on weekends and the inability or difficulty to enjoy free time. An important distinction from depression is that the symptoms improve as the week begins, unlike with depression, in which they last at least two weeks and the depressed mood tends to change little from day to day. Also, depression is often accompanied by psychovegetative symptoms, such as sleep disturbances, severe fatigue, and decreased appetite, as well as more severe symptoms such as feelings of guilt, feelings of worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts. If you notice similar feelings in yourself that persist over a period of at least two weeks, it may help to talk to your doctor, because depression is treatable. But let’s come back to our Sunday neurosis.

Study findings reveal: Education makes you happier overall, but unhappier on weekends on average

In their study “Rhythms and Cycles in Happiness,” economists Wolfgang Maenning, Malte Steenbeek and Markus Wilhelm, from the University of Hamburg, came to the conclusion that it is primarily people with a medium and higher level of education who suffer from the symptoms of weekend neurosis. The scientists surveyed about 20,000 people and found out that, on average, men were more likely to suffer from symptoms such as lower enjoyment of life or general moodiness on weekends. For men with a medium level of education, the effect occurred only on Sundays; for men with a high level of education, it occurred on Saturdays as well as Sundays. For women and men with low levels of education, the researchers found no effect between days of the week and mood. For women with a medium level of education, the negative effects on mood and enjoyment of life were limited to Saturdays, and for women with high levels of education, the negative effects were limited to Sundays.

The researchers do not provide any possible explanations for the effects found in their paper. However, it can be assumed that people with a medium and higher level of education tend to identify more with their work, experience confirmation through it and therefore fall into a kind of “existential crisis” at the weekend, while less educated employees see their job mainly as a means of earning a living and that they define themselves more in terms of their free time, such as hobbies. In addition, workers with higher levels of education are expected to find fulfillment and self-actualization in their jobs. It is particularly painful when, after an exhausting week of important meetings and decisions, a feeling of emptiness sets in that is all the more painful when you have to sell it to the outside world as something meaningful.

The blurring of the line between work and leisure could also be another reason for the negative feelings at the weekend. There is also the possibility that employees with responsible positions find it more difficult, on average, not to keep up the higher stress level consciously or unconsciously during the weekend, e.g. by over-scheduling their free time. On Sunday evening, feeling exhausted, they then realize that a new, exhausting week is already just around the corner. However, it should not be forgotten here that the measured values for satisfaction and enjoyment of life were overall higher among people with a medium and higher level of education in this study than among people with a low level of education.

Psychodynamic approach: What meaning does the weekend or Sunday have for us?

Already Ferenczi’s patients had all kinds of rational explanations for their Sunday complaints. The headaches came from the unaccustomed sleeping in, the gastrointestinal problems from eating too much on the holiday. Certainly, these factors also play a role, but they do not seem to be sufficient as an explanation for the complaints, since the symptoms continued to appear even when the usual sleeping and eating habits were maintained. In the same way, the explanation that one does not manage to unwind properly at the weekend and remains at a high stress level seems obvious, at first, as a cause for the negative feelings and physical complaints at the weekend. But with a psychodynamic approach, we try to look a little further, to look at a level that is only partially or even completely unconscious to us. What is the meaning of Sunday? In the Christian-based cultural community, Sunday is both a day of celebration and a day of rest. Originally, there was only one day off during the week and this day was therefore particularly charged emotionally. After long disputes during the 1950s, employees in Germany can now usually enjoy two days off. During weekends, we are our own masters; we feel liberated, at least temporarily, from the shackles imposed by our duties. On the one hand, this easing of external constraints means liberation; on the other hand, it awakens impulses in us that we can more easily suppress in normal everyday life.

Weekend: All Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll?

Everyday work usually also means responsibility, duty – sometimes even compulsion. From Monday to Friday, a psychic instance is particularly active for this, our superego. The superego contains our internalized moral standards, our sense of duty, our ideal images that we have received through our upbringing and through our life in society. It helps determine our actions and sometimes makes us feel unfree, overly intellectual, or simply exhausted by our own demands. At the same time, it offers us a certain guideline on how we should live as “good citizens”. At the weekend (i.e. usually already on Friday evening) external constraints recede more into the background and thus also internal constraints decrease. Another psychic instance raises its head – the id. In the id Freud localized our drives, everything pleasurable, our needs. Often, therefore, on Friday evenings, for many with the support of alcohol (or other substance), we manage to give ourselves more up to these urgent drives, to let off steam and feel freer. But people with a strict superego tend to go into counter-movement in such temptation situations, becoming depressed, anxious and dissatisfied, either because they try to curb all-too-dangerous urges, or because their all-too-sensitive conscience won’t let even minor transgressions pass. Such suppressed urges, together with the self-punishment fantasies mobilized against them, can also manifest themselves in minor symptoms, such as the headache or gastrointestinal problems mentioned by Ferenczi. Thus, behind the Sunday neurosis there would be, above all, an unsatisfied arousal of desires. But what is the content of these desires? Where does the bad conscience and the punitive tendency of the symptoms come from?

For Ferenczi, the cause of Sunday neurosis lies in the repression of mainly sexual desires and averted aggressive impulses against authority. Suppressing these impulses, the so-called repression, drains on our strength and eventually leads to depressive mood or psychosomatic symptoms.

In today’s fast-paced world, other repressed desires come to mind, such as the desire for meaning or for togetherness. In our stressful daily lives, we may be better off turning off the little voice in our head that asks, “Am I happy with my life?” But on Sunday, that voice gets louder because we pause for a moment. We are confronted with a certain threshold situation before everyday life takes over again. What Sunday is supposed to fulfill, also says something about what is missed in the rest of the week, what remains unfulfilled. In order to pursue such repressed motives and to work on them, analytical psychotherapy is sometimes needed, but psychodynamic coaching can also put us on the track of our repressed desires and needs. What meaning does work have for us? What relationship to work and success was modeled for us by our parents? How have we practiced an approach to Sundays and holidays?

Both Ferenczi and Maenning regard the recurring low mood at the weekend as a natural rhythm. Nature is characterized by ups and downs, and thus humans also seem to have a need to alternate the plagues of everyday life with “celebrations of freedom” for a time and then lapse into a “passagère melancholia”. According to Maenning, the bad mood also makes room for a good mood again. In this way, Sunday neurosis fulfills a purpose and should not be fought with blind actionism.

Out of the Blue(s)?

Aside from blind actionism, you may be wondering what else you can do about the rain clouds in the weekend besides psychodynamic coaching or even psychotherapy? Here are a few ideas you can try:

  • Prepare everything on Friday to the point where you can start the weekend relaxed, and especially take care of those little annoying tasks that might otherwise ruin your weekend.
  • Answer all emails (usually a “thank you” or “all right” is enough) and organize your workplace.
  • Visualize for yourself what you’ve accomplished this week instead of focusing on unfinished tasks. It can be helpful to write down the tasks for the next week and to determine when they can be done, so that they are not “haunting” your mind on the weekend.
  • Try to resolve conflicts with colleagues on Friday and thank them for the help they have given you.
  • Make an experiment to do strenuous or unpleasant tasks (e.g. shopping, laundry etc.) already on Saturday morning, so that you have more energy and a better mood for the rest of the weekend. If this plan doesn’t work out, try to take a sober look at it and don’t judge yourself, but try to understand why you didn’t succeed in completing the tasks – to eat the frog – and that this is ok.
  • Plan a fun, joyful activity for Sunday evening, such as a date night with your partner, going to the movies, movie night at home, dinner with friends, or game night.
  • Get moving on Sunday. Exercise, and especially endurance exercise, has been shown to be extremely effective in alleviating anxiety and depression.
  • Avoid alcohol and other psychogenic substances (this includes drugs as well as coffee or tobacco). Alcohol is a sedative that also disrupts sleep. Disturbed sleep increases anxiety and depressive feelings.
  • Try to treat Sunday a little more like any other day, even though it is free and even legally protected in Germany’s constitution as a “day for spiritual uplifting and rest of work”. The distinction between Fridays, when we try to get as much done as possible, to the deadline of the weekend, during which we then in turn try to get the most out of our free time, is an entitlement that puts us under pressure and thus represents a restriction on the liveliness and dynamics of our lives. Instead, all the days of the week are merely part of an infinitely alternating sequence of days and nights that, taken together, make up our entire lives. Instead of creating in our minds units of time that are too strictly distinct from one another (in a nutshell, weekdays = work and restrain, weekends = leisure and relaxation) that occur separately from the rest of life and assigning them tasks and deadlines, try spreading both tasks and enjoyable activities throughout the week.

If we’ve piqued your curiosity with this article, why not get more to the bottom of those negative feelings on the weekend? We at DynaMIND are happy to help you with that.

Sophie Grußendorf, Coach at dynaMIND