Feeling those January blues? Try these expert-approved, science-backed ways to help pull you through.
January can be a bit of a mood killer. The temperatures are sub-zero, your finances have taken a beating, and you’ve probably already failed at your somewhat unrealistic fitness resolutions.
When all of these forces collide, it can cause what’s known as the ‘January Blues’ - a genuine phenomenon that can manifest in sadness, low energy and a distinct lack of motivation to get stuff done. In short, the new year struggle is real.
To help you navigate the most brutal month of the year, we’ve pulled some practical tips for kicking the Christmas comedown to the curb. Here’s how to enter January feeling positive and energized.
Sleep and our moods are closely connected, and not getting enough quality kip can leave us feeling groggy, irritable and stressed. Research studies show that sleeping less than five hours per night for several nights in a row can wreak havoc on our mental wellbeing.
In fact, MRI scans reveal that being sleep deprived for just one night can increase your emotional reaction to negative situations by up to 60%. If you struggle to drift off, try listening to a sleep meditation app like Calm (Free; Android, iOS) or Loona (Free; Android, iOS).
It’s no coincidence that you feel low the day after drinking. Alcohol is a depressant that disrupts your brain's mood-regulating chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, depleting you of natural ‘happy’ neurotransmitters.
Why not make things easier for yourself by committing to a ‘dry’ month? If you like the ritual of rounding off the week with a Friday night tipple, switch to a 0% alcohol beer like Lucky Saint or a non-boozy CleanCo gin and tonic.
Even low-intensity exercise can have a noticeable effect on our rotten January mood. “Exercise releases ‘happy’ hormones called endorphins that give us a feel-good boost,” says Liz Ritchie, Integrative Psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Healthcare. “Not only does movement lift our mood, but it also makes us more able to cope with stressful situations.”
When it comes to building a regular routine, the key is finding what you love. “It doesn’t have to involve an expensive gym membership,” stresses Ritchie. “It could be getting outside for a 5k run - and arguably, this is more beneficial in winter because you’re reaping the benefits of the natural daylight.”
The winter blues are estimated to affect 10 million Americans and 2 million people in the UK. Feelings of sadness are a normal part of life, and Ritchie believes they can be valuable emotions too. When we’re low, we can slow down and make choices that improve our circumstances. “We put a huge pressure on ourselves to pretend everything is OK,” says Ritchie.
“When we accept negative feelings, we work towards a more solution-focused place. We can identify triggers and adapt to manage our mood, whether avoiding alcohol or slowing down our schedule.”
When it comes to winter, light is your best friend. Natural daylight encourages the brain to increase the production of mood-boosting serotonin and reduce levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. For some people, this effect is so profound that they experience ‘SAD’ during the darker months, a depressive disorder that comes and goes each winter.
“Try to get out for a lunchtime walk in the daylight if you can,” says Ritchie. “You could also try using a SAD lamp for 30 minutes each morning - a plug-in lamp that mimics daylight and eases the symptoms.”
Rosy retrospection is a type of psychological bias that causes people to think past events are more enjoyable than they were in reality. It can particularly affect us in January when we feel nostalgic for Christmas. “It’s little wonder we view the past as more favorable when we have credit card bills and a full inbox to deal with in January,” says Ritchie.
“The reality is that Christmas has its own stresses, such as family arguments and social burnout. Instead of dwelling on the past, plan some things in your diary that you can look forward to throughout January.”
Looking for an excuse to treat yourself to some colourful new activewear? A 2012 study published by the University of Hertfordshire Press found a strong link between clothing and mood. Participants in the research study saw an increase in happiness when they wore clothes that had symbolic value.
The theory is that we should all be ‘dopamine dressing’ - opting for brightly-colored clothes or pieces that feel extra special. Basically, getting out of bed on a cold January morning might be easier if you’ve got some handsome Huelwear in the wardrobe and a box fresh pair of sneaks waiting at the front door.
Tidying and organizing your home doesn’t just make it easier to find the things you need; it can improve your wellbeing too. Studies have found that clutter increases the stress hormone cortisol and makes it harder to fall asleep. Decluttering an entire home can be overwhelming, so allocate 30 minutes daily and tackle it room by room.
Our gut flora can have a significant effect on our mental health. A landmark 2017 study called the SMILES Trial tested the link between food and our mood. It found that 32% of participants who ate a gut-healthy Mediterranean diet had a reduction in their depressive symptoms over a three-month period compared to just 8% of those who received peer support.
The diet tends to be high in fiber and this could be one of the reasons for the positive results (the diet study group allegedly ate 50 grams of gut-boosting fiber a day). To feed your microbes, ensure you’re eating a wide variety of plant-based foods including whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables and legumes.
While it’s always good to have goals and ambitions, the resolutions we often set can be high-pressure and unrealistic. When we set unachievable goals, we either burn out or get frustrated and quit early.
“Be kind to yourself right now,” says Ritchie. “As it’s dark and cold, January is the most challenging time to make healthy lifestyle changes, so avoid putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.”
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