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.
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.
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.
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.