We all know the feeling. The branches of the Christmas tree have turned crispy, festive-looking cookies and treats taste stale and tiny bits of wrapping paper are still lurking in your living room corners. And you’re feeling blue. Once the holiday excitement has dwindled, and the early nightfall and soggy weather seem to stretch ahead of you endlessly — it’s not hard to fall into a bit of a funk.
The January blues can hit hard, but we’ve got some advice and information to help keep the worst of it at bay.
What do January blues look like?
Though the icky feeling can vary from person to person, there are some clear indicators that you may be under its spell.
“It’s like a mild form of depression,” says Lynn Fainsilber Katz, PhD, research professor with the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology. “People often show signs of sadness and irritability, along with feelings of general anxiety.”
Other symptoms? Lingering feelings of tiredness and fatigue, low energy, issues with sleeping (whether that’s problems falling asleep or sleeping too much) and changes in appetite. Some people also find less pleasure in doing the things that normally bring them joy — a big indicator that something is going on.
What causes the blues?
Though crispy tree branches may not drive you over the edge, there are many other reasons that people feel bummed out during this time of the year.
Katz points to the dreary weather and early sunsets as two big reasons that people feel sad (never underestimate the strong effects of the absence of light).
Another issue? The letdown from the holidays. “It’s not just that they’re over,” says Katz, “but a lot of things can happen during a family holiday gathering. It can go well — or not so well. And when your expectations aren’t met, or there are conflicts or confrontations, you can be left feeling deflated that your holidays weren’t everything you wanted them to be. Especially if you didn’t get to have that warm, close family experience that you were longing for.”
How to beat the blues
It’s essential for people feeling down to stay active and engage with others, even though they often just want to withdraw and isolate themselves.
“Engage in activities that you care about — whether that’s volunteering, babysitting your grandchildren, taking the dog for a walk — it can be very simple, everyday activities that you enjoy,” Katz says.
In addition, you can lift your spirits by:
- Exercising — it can be as simple as a quick jaunt around the neighborhood. You’re probably feeling sluggish from all that eggnog anyway, so a few extra endorphins will only improve your mood.
- Focusing on nutrition. Eating vitamin-rich foods can help with well-being, especially those packed with vitamin D, magnesium and antioxidants.
- Finding natural light. Everyone needs some sunshine in their lives — throw open the curtains and maybe even crack your window for some fresh air. Not every day is going to be gray and gloomy (we hope), so enjoy the ones that aren’t.
- Focusing on gratitude. Think about the things you are thankful for — even for Aunt Joan, who gave a kooky speech at New Year’s Eve dinner or for your peppermint mocha, perfectly prepared by your local barista.
- Rewarding yourself. Plan to see a movie, buy a new book or visit your favorite restaurant to break up the mundane and bolster your spirits.
If you’re still not feeling it, Katz says to make some plans anyway. Maybe make some plans that will be harder to break or plan something you can really look forward to — like a trip somewhere or something casual and inexpensive like a simple dinner or gathering with friends.
What about Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Though not the same as January blues, many people also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) during this time of year. This tends to be a more serious condition — and it can last longer than the few weeks that folks are usually dealing with their post-holiday low mood.
SAD is a type of depression that happens during the dreary months and is thought to be caused by a chemical change in the brain in response to shorter days and less daylight. The most common symptoms of SAD include irritability, changes in sleep (like increased daytime sleep and drowsiness), social withdrawal and isolation, and decreased sex drive.
A mental health professional will be able to evaluate you for SAD, and the usual treatments for the condition include light therapy (those fancy-looking lamps), psychotherapy and sometimes antidepressants.
When it’s time to reach out for help
Of course, for some people, the tips and tricks we’ve supplied won’t be enough — and in that case, those January blues may be something more serious that requires other interventions like medication and therapy. If you’re feeling prolonged sadness that is interfering with your daily functioning or experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you need to reach out for help immediately. You can always call 988 and reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which is a national network of crisis centers that provide free and confidential support to people in distress.
Remember, though feeling blue in January is common, there are steps you can take that will help usher you through the (literal) darkness and closer to the brightness of the next season.