January is one of the coldest, dreariest months of the year. The dark mornings, the short days, and the long nights can make us feel more tired and run down than usual. During this vulnerable time, it is important to develop some healthy coping behaviours. The post-holiday blues are real and can leave us feeling mentally and physically exhausted. As natural as it is to feel down when January comes around, it’s important to keep yourself in sound mind and body to get through the seasonal blues.

January is a vulnerable time for many of us. We place high expectations on ourselves to be better, more organised, healthier, fitter, and happier for the coming year. These are great intentions to have, but if we pressure ourselves to be perfect every day, we are likely to be disappointed. Nobody is perfect.

We all make mistakes; we indulge, we lose our cool, and we blame ourselves or others for things outside of our control. Unfortunately, some of us struggle to deal with the holiday blues and turn to unhealthy coping behaviours to deal with our feelings. Such behaviours include alcohol and drug misuse and abuse, unhealthy eating habits, or social withdrawal.

In this blog, we will offer some useful tools and tips to help you get through the seasonal blues and keep yourself in optimal health. Note that you don’t have to successfully use these tools and tips every day. Keeping ourselves healthy and happy is a process, one that is not helped by harsh self-criticism or self-blame. Let’s begin with perhaps the most important tool of all – self-compassion.

Practice Self Compassion

Self-compassion is a seed for positive change. All of the other tips outlined below stem from compassion toward yourself. When we are compassionate toward ourselves, it means that we let go of unnecessary suffering and forgive ourselves unconditionally.

“Our successes and failures come and go – hey neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness’1, says Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

Self-compassion is about respecting your relationship with yourself and showing yourself real love and care. There is a general view of self-care among the internet and social media that makes it look like pampering. As amazing as that sounds, self-care is more about identifying what you need to do for yourself at any given moment, and that isn’t always pretty.

Sometimes self-care and compassion can look like removing yourself from a toxic situation or setting personal boundaries. It can look like waking up earlier than you would like because it gives you time in the day to eat a good breakfast or do some exercise. It can also look like pampering, but it is important to take the time to ask yourself what you really need.

Get Active

Remember to keep active as much as you can. You don’t even have to leave the house if it’s too cold to go outside. Simple at-home aerobic exercises can be enough to get your blood pumping and keep your heart healthy.

Physical activity has been proven time and time again to lift our mood and increase our overall well-being.2 According to Monika Guszkowska in Psychiatry Polska, aerobic exercise is proposed to lift our mood by improving our blood circulation, thus delivering more blood and oxygen to the brain.3 Improved circulation to certain areas of the brain, in particular the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, strengthens our psychological resilience in the face of stress.4 According to the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, exercise also benefits our mental health by reducing the severity of our anxiety and depression, and by increasing our self-esteem and improving cognitive function.5

The holiday season may have been a time of increased stress for many, so it’s important to treat your mind and body well in the months that follow.

Try going for a walk or run, taking up a yoga practice, or even putting aside some time every day to just move and stretch your body.

Connect With Others

The cold weather and dark evenings can make us feel lonely. Try to stay connected with others with a phone call or a video chat, or, depending on COVID restriction and guidelines in your area, invite a friend over for tea. Research has consistently shown that connection and social bonding, even over the phone, can list our mood and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.6 The January blues affect all of us to some degree. By reaching out to a friend, you might realise that you’re not alone in how you feel.

Take The Pressure Off

The lead up to the holiday season is stressful for many of us. Once the festivities have passed and things settle down, allow yourself some downtime. The start of any new year brings a lot of pressure. New year’s resolutions have been made and it is easy to feel pressured to keep them up. Give yourself some space to breathe and let yourself relax if you can.

Meditation and Mindfulness

This is as good a time as any to take up a meditation or mindfulness practice. There is a wealth of resources available online to help you begin meditating or practising mindfulness. If you’re a complete beginner to meditation and mindfulness, don’t worry if you find yourself becoming frustrated or as if you ‘can’t meditate’. This is all part of the process, and with consistent practice, you will notice that stillness comes a little bit easier over time. Note that the goal is not to attain complete emptiness or ‘ego-death’ and transcendence or any other advanced spiritual achievements.

Founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Jon Kabat Zinn explains that many of us get attached to ideas and concepts about how mindfulness should be. “You might be tempted to avoid the messiness of daily living for the tranquility of stillness and peacefulness’, says Kabat Zinn. ‘This of course would be an attachment to stillness, and like any strong attachment, it leads to delusion. It arrested development and short-circuits the cultivation of wisdom.”7

Bear in mind Kabat-Zinn’s message and remember that meditation and mindfulness are about simply noticing. They are about noticing your thoughts, not trying to escape from them.

Express Gratitude

Gratitude is an extremely useful tool we can use to bring some light into our lives and take the weight off our negative emotions. Keep it simple by writing in a journal, even just for a couple of minutes a day. Studies have shown that keeping a cognitive and emotionally focused journal leads to increased feelings of wellbeing.8 Participants also reported less ill-health during the study. Researchers also found that practising gratitude also improves the quality of social relationships9.

Eat a Healthy Diet

This tip might already be a part of your new year’s resolution. However, we know that resolutions are infamous for being broken. Reframe your decision to eat healthily. Instead of considering it to be a resolution for the year, look at it as a decision you can make on a daily basis. You can’t eat well for a month or a year in one day. Bring your attention to the day you’re living in and lean towards healthy food choices, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, wholewheat breads, seeds, omega-3 fatty acids, and high-quality proteins. Omega-3 fatty acids are are linked to increase in wellbeing and reduction of depression.10 Over time, your good choices will accumulate into a healthy eating routine and you will start to notice the wide range of benefits.

If you’re struggling with food and eating, know that professional help is available. There may be many blogs and posts online about the importance of healthy eating – as we have just mentioned above – but we also know that our diets can be extremely personal and food can carry a lot of emotional charge. If your relationship with food is causing you distress, and you’re worried that the seasonal blues are going to make it worse, speak to someone. Reach out to a friend or family member who you can rely on for support, or speak to a professional counsellor or therapist.

A Final Thought

We suffer so much from the expectation we place on ourselves. It’s great to get motivated and plan for all the positive changes you want to see in your life, but if you pressure yourself to be productive or make some big changes immediately, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. It is important to understand that you’re human and it’s alright to take some time off from your personal pressures and self-expectations.

1 Neff, Kristin. Self-compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: William Morrow, 2011.

2 Guszkowska, Monika. “Wpływ ćwiczeń fizycznych na poziom leku i depresji oraz stany nastroju” [Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood]. Psychiatria polska vol. 38,4 (2004): 611-20.

3 Guszkowska, Monika. “Wpływ ćwiczeń fizycznych na poziom leku i depresji oraz stany nastroju” [Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood]. Psychiatria polska vol. 38,4 (2004): 611-20.

4 Guszkowska, Monika. “Wpływ ćwiczeń fizycznych na poziom leku i depresji oraz stany nastroju” [Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood]. Psychiatria polska vol. 38,4 (2004): 611-20.

5 Callaghan, P. “Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care?.” Journal of psychiatric and mental health nursing vol. 11,4 (2004): 476-83. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2850.2004.00751.x

6 “Stay Connected To Combat Loneliness And Social Isolation”. National Institute On Aging, https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/infographics/stay-connected-combat-loneliness-and-social-isolation. Accessed 19 Dec 2020.

7 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, 1994

8 Ullrich, P.M., Lutgendorf, S.K. Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. ann. behav. med. 24, 244–250 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1207/S15324796ABM2403_10

9 O’Connell, B.H., O’Shea, D. & Gallagher, S. Examining Psychosocial Pathways Underlying Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Happiness Stud 19, 2421–2444 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-017-9931-5

10 Bloch, M., Hannestad, J. Omega-3 fatty acids for the treatment of depression: systematic review and meta-analysis. Mol Psychiatry 17, 1272–1282 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2011.100

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