January blues or a brave new world?

woman with blues in rain

 

Aims of this article:

  1. Help you to develop a broader understanding of winter mood issues
  2. Learn how to feel better this winter
  3. Reduce concern over your mood in subsequent winters
  4. Make ‘sticky’ New Years resolutions

Is mood seasonal?

People often ask me whether my clinical work as a psychologist is seasonal and I’ve noticed throughout my career that early January does seem to be a time where the number of referrals for anxiety disorders and depression increases. So I’d like to look at why that might be the case and what we can do about the low mood and malaise that seems to accompany this time of year. There are a number of factors that might fuel low mood particularly in early January.

  1. Winter appears to be a more challenging time of year for most of us. We haven’t changed many of the primordial responses that have been with us in the 200,000 years that mankind has inhabited the planet. We are by nature diurnal animals which means that we operate best during the day time; so we are able to function optimally for much less of the time during winter when the short days and long nights are with us.

So how do we compensate for this? Well unlike our prehistoric predecessors have an abundance of gas and electricity that means we can heat and light our homes and social spaces. There is no need for us to go into a state of hibernation; it’s important to get out, to socialise and exercise during the winter. Leaving home in the dark and returning after work in the dark can lower our mood so we need to adopt a better state of mind. Try to get out for a walk at lunchtime or better still do it with a friend or work colleague. Don’t go home and vegetate in front of the television, pop into the gym on the way home for a work out, arrange to meet friends for coffee, go to the cinema, or if you’re like Glyn (our editor) and me do the pub quiz. Winter blues to a large degree is just a state of mind that we can manage well if we just try. (Editors note: It also helps that the quiz is on a Monday making Mondays my favourite day of the week).

 

  1. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) however does seem to affect about 9% of the population. The pineal gland secretes a hormone called melatonin which regulates our sleep patterns, however over production of melatonin is also linked to low mood. (Think melatonin = melancholia). Daylight supresses the pineal gland which then produces less melatonin, but in the winter when there is less daylight so some people may be prone to over production of melatonin.

 

Getting outside during daylight hours can help this condition, particularly if there is some bright sunshine, but if it persists then purchasing a relatively inexpensive light box also helps to relieve SAD.

woman running in snow lined road to combat SAD

  1. The post-Christmas dip in mood is also a factor in early January. Hopefully most of us will have enjoyed the festive season and have been able to enjoy some time off work. January brings us back to earth with a bump as we trudge back to work with the realisation that we have two more months of cold weather before the arrival of spring. Another element of the post-Christmas dip is that many people will have paid for the festivities on their credit cards and consequently have the added factor of having to tighten their belts to pay for it all.

 

Plans and New Years Resolutions

Make plans! It doesn’t have to be something expensive, although if you can afford to book a long weekend at the end of January or in early February that can provide a boost to our mood. Plan to do something a bit different – visit a local beauty spot for a long walk and take a hot flask and some sandwiches. Drive to a city that you’ve never been to and explore the local history. Find out what’s available free; there are over 50 free national museums in the UK. Put some dates in your diary to get out and about; anticipating a positive experience helps counter low mood so the more we have to look forward to the better.

Our resolutions at New Year tend to be about eating healthier or joining a gym. Whilst we think these things are great simply resolve to do some of the above in the first week of January to feel an improvement in your mood.

 

  1. As we reach the end of a year many of us reflect back on the past year and all too easily fall into the trap of focussing on the negative issues that occurred over the past 365 days. This inevitably causes us to feel disheartened and disempowered.

 

For many years my daughter Martha and I always have a ‘review of the year’, which focuses largely on the positive aspects of the previous 12 months. Whilst there may have been some trials and tribulations we also try to focus on how well we have dealt with those troubles. Negative thoughts are not always bad though as they can spur us on to motivate ourselves to make positive changes in the New Year – hence the fascination with New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the beginning of February. Here are some specific tips for making those New Year resolutions stick;

          – It takes 21 days to form a habit so you have to keep at it if you are going to introduce something new into your life

          – Beginning with a real bang helps keep the motivation going for longer, this could be why ‘dry January’ might be effective at helping people to cut down their drinking over the course of the whole year.

          – Set hard goals but cut yourself a little slack rather than setting easier goals. One study calls this the ‘mulligan’; rather than set yourself the goal of exercising five days a week, set the goal of exercising seven days a week but with the rider that if necessary you can miss two days. Researchers found those with the mulligan actually exercised more than five days a week even though they had an opt-out for two days.

          – It’s easier to replace an old habit with a new habit. So giving up drinking sugary drinks is made slightly easier if it we replace that habit with a new healthy habit like eating a piece of fruit.

          – Linking, sometimes known as ‘piggybacking’ can also help. If you already have a good habit can you link this to another positive habit? For example if you shave every day can you also do some balancing exercises whilst you shave to improve your stability which helps to prevent falls in elderly people.

          – Use rewards to motivate yourself, e.g. I can only watch my favourite soap opera if I’ve been to the gym today

          – Use both positive and negative images to motivate yourself. For someone who wants to lose weight a photograph of yourself looking really dreadful can be one way to motivate a change in behaviour, equally some people will be more motivated by a photograph of themselves looking really good.

woman happy in winter

January can be a tough month, it’s hard to combat 200,000 years of conditioning to survive on the planet in the depths of winter, but there’s no reason not to find ways to enjoy ourselves every day of our lives regardless of the weather. If you can’t break out of the winter mind-set you’re going to be a victim of this season for about a quarter of your life!

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