Feeling extra blue today? It’s probably not just you.
Back in 2005, Cliff Arnell, who at the time was a tutor at the Center for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University, devised an equation that said the third Monday in January was the most depressing day of the year. Several factors were used to calculate this theory, among them: weather, debt level, time since Christmas, time since starting, and failing at, New Year’s resolutions, low motivation levels, and the feeling of a need to take action. Sound familiar?
Arnell’s concept was released to the public by way of a press release for a travel company, in an effort to get those who were feeling down to lift their spirits with a vacation. Since then, unsurprisingly, the theory has been debunked by scientists as nonsensical (the data was deemed inconclusive and mathematically invalid). However, despite science spoiling a perfectly good marketing campaign, the overall notion of “Blue Monday” does stem from a real place.
January—with the excitement and stress of the holidays long gone, and a bleak few months of winter ahead—can bring people to emotional lows, aka the winter blues. But there’s a more serious, if common, mood disorder that doesn’t begin or end with January—Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
SAD typically occurs at the same time every year, beginning in fall and sometimes lasting all the way until spring, and it can come with some pretty serious symptoms, like fatigue, depression, hopelessness, weight gain, and social withdrawal.
“Winter blues is a general term, not a medical diagnosis. It’s fairly common, and it’s more mild than serious. It usually clears up on its own in a fairly short amount of time,” says Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, a mental health expert at NIH. “Seasonal affective disorder, though, is different. It’s a well-defined clinical diagnosis that’s related to the shortening of daylight hours.”
Rudorfer explains that SAD affects people more often in Northern states, where days are darker and shorter (about 10 percent of Alaskans suffer from it versus 1 percent of Floridians). This is because less daylight can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock. During the day, the brain sends signals to the body to stay awake and alert, while at night it produces melatonin, which helps people sleep. When the daylight hours shift, the cycle is disrupted resulting, in some instances, in SAD.
So how can you beat the malaise?
Be Active. Allison Page, Pediatric and Family Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner and founder of Trail Talk, suggests balancing out the low feelings by incorporating a healthy, active routine: Get outdoors at least 30 minutes each day, exercise, and get into a daily routine of it: it will help improve sleep hygiene. She says cold weather shouldn’t hold you back from breathing in some fresh air each day. Bundle up with the right clothing (boot heaters, hand warmers, etc.) and hit the trails.
Take Extra Vitamin D. “Ask your medical provider for a simple blood test first so you know how much to take everyday,” says Page. “Low vitamin D means low seratonin, which means low mood.”
Try Light Therapy. Spending 30 minutes each day sitting in front of a light box or using light-emitting visors, is also known to help improve overall mood and symptoms of SAD.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Behavioral changes—or cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)—encourages SAD patients to identify negative thoughts and reframe them in a more realistic way. CBT, which has been proven to have lasting results, focuses on finding pleasurable activities, like something as simple as going for a walk or lunch with friends. Work with a healthcare provider or therapist to see if this practice might be right for you.