Five ways to beat the January blues

I hate January. It’s dark, it’s cold and Christmas is over. I’ve gained Christmas weight and am distinctly poorer than I was in December. I sorely miss the Christmas decorations and feel robbed of the fairy lights which, only days ago, adorned windows everywhere. The next bank holiday is months away. It’s fair to say that I’m familiar with the January blues, a widely experienced phenomenon thought to peak on ‘Blue Monday’, the third Monday in January which is considered to be the most depressing day of the year. Since January is here again and will be happening every day until February, I thought it was a good time to write some evidence-based tips on how to beat the January blues.

1. Look for the silver lining 

Being able to look for the positives in situations, the ‘silver lining’, is a key feature of optimism. This is not about putting a positive spin on negative events or denying their dismal reality. Instead, it’s about being able to find even one positive element in an otherwise grey situation. Studies have suggested that taking a silver-linings approach to life helps boost creativity and could be useful for coping with disaster situations.

The truth is, alongside February, January is the most unpopular month of the year, for obvious reasons. However, it still comes with some silver linings. For example, January is lighter than December, with nearly 30 minutes more daylight each day on average. In that sense, the worst of winter has already passed. The sun still rises relatively late though – around 8am all month. So, if you’ve ever wanted to watch the sun rise from some beautiful location, now is a great time to do it. Leave it until June and you’ll have to get there before 4am for the same event.

January is also a good time for buying certain types of seasonal fruits and vegetables, including apples, pears and beetroot – they are usually cheaper in January than later in the year. In fact, the general lull of January also means that it’s a good time to buy – well – almost anything. It’s one of the cheapest times to travel, to buy a tv or to take out a new gym membership. In the next few months, the price of most things climbs. And, despite its general quietness, there are a handful of great events during January, including Chinese New Year, Glasgow’s Celtic Connections Festival and Burns’ Night. Overall, it’s fair to conclude that January pretty much sucks, but it has some silver linings.

how to beat the January blues

2. Build plus points into your day

If you’re still struggling to think of any silver linings to help beat the January blues, create some by building small positive events into your day. Cognitive Behaviour Therapists call this ‘positive event scheduling’ and it has been shown to effectively reduce the risk of depressed mood. These events should be small things which lift your mood and give you something to look forward to. Write them down and schedule when you’ll do them. For example, it could be as simple as promising yourself an 11am latte and making the time to fetch it. You might then plan in some time to read a magazine or take a brief walk at lunch time. In the evening, you might plan to catch up on a tv show you like, take a bath or spend some time on a hobby. The basic idea is: think of things you like doing and schedule them in. This way, you’re more likely to do them, and you might even look forward to them. Despite a general cultural push to spend January living austerely (think, New Year’s resolutions, dry January, Veganuary), it’s important to allow some small indulgences when you have the January blues. 

3. Focus your attention outside yourself

Feeling blue often comes with an excess of self-focused attention. In other words, being stuck in your own head. This can be in the form of rumination – going over and over past events, wondering ‘Did I do the right thing? Why did that happen?’ It can also be in the form of worrying – thinking about all the things that could go wrong in the future, and how you might cope with them. One way to combat this is to purposely focus your attention on other things that interest you. Depending on your personality, this might involve joining a new class or community group to learn a new skill or help a good cause. It might include going to the book shop and picking up some books about an issue or topic that interests you. One of my favourite ways to ‘get out of my head’ is to listen to podcasts, as I can listen to these when I’m commuting, cleaning up or doing almost any menial chore. Click here to see a round up of some of my favourite podcasts from 2019. The bottom line is – taking an interest in something new that captures your attention, even if only for brief periods, can help beat the January blues.

4. Exercise

Exercise has been touted by some as the ‘magic bullet’ for mental health. While this is definitely an overstatement, there is now strong evidence that it has a consistent, beneficial effect on lifting low mood. One study suggests that this may be because exercise reduces blood serotonin levels, similar to the effects of pharmaceutical antidepressants. If the thought of vigorous exercise makes you want to pull the curtains and switch on the TV though, it’s important to note that even gentle exercise like walking has benefits too. 

How to beat the January blues exercise

5. Get a good night’s sleep

In the winter months it is harder to sleep. This seems paradoxical to me: I would have assumed that long, dark nights mean ample time for undisturbed rest, but the opposite seems to be true. Studies show that in the northern hemisphere, winter increases the risk of delayed bed times, trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep and general poor sleep quality. It is thought that this is caused by the way that light effects our hormones – with the earlier morning light of spring ‘setting’ our biological clock earlier (and more effectively). Poor sleep is a risk factor for a wide range of mental health problems including depression and anxiety. To improve sleep quality there are a range of steps you can take, including taking time to relax in the evening and getting as much light exposure during the day as possible. See this article by healthline.com for a great list of suggestions.

Top healthcare and psychology podcasts from 2019

2019 was the year I discovered podcasts. I’m not alone – it’s estimated that there are currently 800 000 podcasts, an increase of 250 000 since the middle on 2018. Here, I share some of my favourites. While most of these aren’t targeted specifically at health or psychology audiences, they all tackle events or issues likely to appeal to people working or studying in these areas, including everything from healthcare scandals to recorded counselling sessions.

 

Dr Death

dr death podcast
This was the most shocking podcast I listened to in 2019. It charts the story of
Christopher Duntsch, a US neurosurgeon who claimed to be the best in Dallas. He has since been convicted of maiming one of his patients and sentenced to life imprisonment. Altogether, he is thought to have caused the death and maiming of 33 patients. The show has been criticised for sensationalising the story for entertainment and is certainly not told in the style of a documentary. However, for anyone interested in healthcare safety, it’s a horrifying, absorbing cautionary tale on what can happen when adequate safeguards are not in place to ensure professional standards. From Wondery, Dr Death is hosted by Laura Beil and is available to download from Apple podcasts and Spotify.  

 

PsychCrunch

PsychCrunch podcast

If you’ve ever wondered how you can improve your commitment to exercise, eat less chocolate, persuade others of your viewpoint or make yourself more attractive to others, PsychCrunch is for you. From the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, each episode is around 15-20 minutes long and features interviews with experts on different topics. The podcast is published quarterly and is presented by Dr Christian Jarrett, Ginny Smith and Ella Rhodes. It’s snappy, informative and evidence-based – an easy and engaging way to keep up with developments across psychology. Psychcrunch is available to download on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.

 

The Drop Out 

From ABC Audio, The Drop Out explores the story of Elizabeth Homes and her company, Theranos. Holmes’ goal was to create the first blood test which could provide multiple test results using only a drop of blood – the amount that would result from a pin-prick. This technology would make testing cheaper and more convenient and was widely described as ‘revolutionary’. Her idea drew enormous investment and made her the youngest self-made female billionaire. The only problem was that it was never more than an idea: Holmes’ company Theranos did not even manage to produce blood testing devices which were as accurate as machines already on the market, using the standard amount of blood required. For anyone working in healthcare, the story is an insight into the world of healthcare technology innovation: how it can happen, and where it can go wrong. From a psychological perspective, it considers the mind and motivations of someone dedicated to a goal, regardless of the situation and the cost. The Drop Out is available to download from Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts and Spotify. 

 

Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel

Esther Perel is a Belgian-born couples therapist whose podcast episodes are unscripted, one-time counselling sessions. The names of the couples have been changed to help provide anonymity, but the voices and conversation are real. Perel now has a huge library of previous sessions, covering relationship challenges ranging from impotence too infidelity. Perel initially trained in psychodynamic therapy before training in family systems therapy. Her website states that she offers training in ‘psychodynamic, attachment, and systemic theories, as well as sex therapy, psychodrama, and body-oriented approaches’. In truth, as a UK-based, CBT-trained Clinical Psychologist, I’m not sure exactly what her approach is or how it is supposed to work, but it certainly makes for a good podcast. I’d recommend this show for anyone interested in relationships, the concept of one-time counselling sessions or the use of therapeutic models for couples therapy. From Audible, Where Should We Begin? can be downloaded from Spotify, Stitcher and Apple podcasts. 

 

I Hear Voices 

From BBC Radio 1, this podcast covers 27-year-old Alice’s experience of hearing voices. Alice has multiple voices, each of which has a different personality and may be more likely to occur in relation to different events that happen. For example, there is one set of voices that she only hears when she is cooking and another that occurs after she has self-harmed. Each episode is brief, lasting less than 10 minutes, and explains one of these voice-hearing personalities. The series is told entirely from Alice’s perspective and provides a window into what life is like when you hear voices which can be hard to ignore. Alice’s insight and perception into her own experiences are utterly illuminating for anyone working in mental health or psychology – highly recommended. I Hear Voices is available to download from BBC Sounds and Apple podcasts.

 

Bad Batch 

In the US, stem cells are big business. Touted as the cure-all for everything from joint aches to Parkinson’s, they can now be purchased in the form of non-controversial birth stem cells (taken from the umbilical cord blood of live born babies) and injected by medical professionals for just $5000 a pop. Bad Batch focuses on this industry, highlighting the lack of evidence to support the lofty claims made by stem cell distributors. It also highlights the risks, focusing on one company, Liveyon, which distributed stem cell vials which led to a group of treated patients falling gravely ill. They also happened to contain almost no active stem cells. Laura Beil, host and reporter, delivers some compelling insights into the factors which have enabled such an industry – and such a patient safety debacle – to occur. First, she highlights inadequate regulation of stem cells, as they are not treated as drugs by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Second, she highlights the nature of the profit-based US healthcare system, where treatments are marketed directly to patients using flashy advertising. For anyone interested in healthcare systems, it’s an engrossing insight into the problems that come when healthcare becomes a marketable commodity. From Wondery, Bad Batch is available to download from Spotify, Stitcher, Podtail and Apple podcasts.

 

The Last Days of August

Jon Ronson’s podcast, The Last Days of August investigates the death by suicide of porn star August Ames. Ames was aged just 23 at the time, and her death immediately followed a social media ‘pile on’ regarding a comment she made on Twitter. Ronson has long been interested in the effects of public shaming, and his investigation begins there. However, before long he moves away from viewing the Twitter storm as the main reason for Ames’ death. His investigation leads him to explore her childhood, adolescence, marriage to 43-year old porn producer, Kevin Moore and a recent traumatic film shoot she was involved in. As a Clinical Psychologist with a PhD in suicide research, I was a little frustrated that Ronson didn’t include any interviews with experts in suicide, which could have informed his investigation and provided a framework to put the puzzle pieces together. Despite this, it’s a deeply engaging podcast. Sensitively handled by Ronson and his producer Lina Misitzis, it had me gripped to the end. This podcast is likely to be of interest to anyone with a background in mental health or  suicide research. It suitably comes with a warning at the start of every episode though – listeners should be warned that it contains bad language and frequent sexual references, in addition to covering an extremely sensitive topic. From Audible, The Last Days of August is available to download from Stitcher, Apple podcasts, PlayerFM and Podbay.

 

The Shrink Next Door

From Bloomberg and Wondery, The Shrink Next Door tells the story of the relationship between Marty Markowitz and his therapist, Dr. Isaac Herschkopf. The story is told by long-time journalist Joe Nocera. Nocera had a house in the Hamptons and believed for years that the neighbouring house was owned by Herschkopf. He was invited to house parties by Herschkopf, who also happened to have his name on the mail box. Herschkopf was affluent enough to employ a handyman, whom Nocera regularly saw taking care of the pool and back garden when the Herschkopfs were not staying there. The first twist, of course, is that the house was never owned by Herschkopf: it was owned by Markowitz, who was also mistaken for being the handyman. The Shrink Next Door explores the progressively controlling, isolating and unhealthy ‘therapeutic relationship’ between Herschkopf and Markowitz which gradually saw Herschkopf taking control of Markowitz’s relationships, finances and business. As a mental health professional, this story made my jaw drop. I once agonised over whether it was appropriate to accept the gift of a DVD from a client who wanted to say ‘thank you’ at the end of therapy; the concept that a therapist could break every professional boundary going was utterly astounding to me. This podcast will interest anyone with a background in mental health or a concern for the oversight of therapeutic relationships in health systems. The Shrink Next Door is available to download from Stitcher, PlayerFM and Apple podcasts.