Brightening Up The Blues

The Murky Myth of Blue Monday, Tips for Seasonal Affective Disorder and The Brittle Beauty of January.

Writer T.S Elliot may have once said that “April is the cruellest month” but January should really take that crown. Already this month we’ve had snow, storms, ice, frost and flooding. It is cold, dark and it certainly has potential to be the dreariest month of the year. One UK travel agency decided to really capitalise on that feeling and fabricated a ‘fact’ in a strong PR bid to sell more holidays. Back in 2005 Sky Travel decried that the third monday in January was the most depressing day of the year and labelled it, “blue monday”. The claim was based on a theoretical equation, “that takes into account numerous variables that negatively influence people’s mood”.  Forbes magazine describes the formula for the equation as follows: “ [W+(D-d)] x TQ divided by M x NA. In this equation, W is supposed to stand for the weather, D for your debt, d for your monthly salary, T for the time since Christmas, Q for the time since you failed quitting something that you attempted to quit, M for low motivational levels and NA for the need to take action.”

In reality no such equation exists in credible science, as the formula includes all kinds of variables that are neither metric nor measurable. While it is unknown if the PR campaign was successful in selling more holidays, the myth of Blue Monday and its murky presence lingers on, nearly twenty years later. The shadow of blue monday lingers so pervasively perhaps because as a society we do put a lot of expectations and pressures on ourselves at the beginning of the year and the winter months can impact people’s moods. 

Where it once may have been dismissed or overlooked, as a recent BBC article reported, “the existence of wintertime depression, known as “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (Sad), is now well-accepted. The symptoms include a persistent sadness or anxiety lasting for at least two weeks; a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness; decreased energy; overeating; and oversleeping”. Seasonal Affective Disorder is not just accepted now but closely studied. For a time it was thought that a reduction in daylight hours during the winter months interrupted the circadian rhythm, the body’s biological clock, and could be improved using light therapy. This therapy uses specialised lamps that mimic the Sun, in an attempt to recalibrate the body clock. However, a Cochrane Systematic Review taken in 2019 suggested that the evidence proving the effectiveness of light therapy was “limited”. Whether or not it really is “life changing”, sun lamps might still be a more pleasant way to wake up than most jarring, jingling phone alarms. 

Another study rather adorably suggests that we are like colonies of emperor penguins who should huddle together to share body heat. This is based on the theory of “social thermoregulation” and suggests that humans have, “evolved to look towards others as sources of physical warmth and comfort.” Apparently this is linked to a rise in engagement and activity on dating sites, as well as an increased viewing figures of romantic movies. The BBC claim that a study from 2011 demonstrates how, “data from online movie rentals reveals that people are more likely to pick romance films over other genres when the temperature drops – a finding that has been replicated in multiple laboratory experiments. A heart-warming movie apparently fulfils our evolved desire for emotional warmth and affection prompted by the chill outside.” January then is the perfect month and excuse to cuddle up under a blanket with your favourite hot drink and your good rom-com! Equally, it is a good reminder to either invite friends over for those movie nights and all get cosy like your own colony of penguins or get simply get together with loved ones for a cup of tea.

During Spring and Summer months when we are exposed to more sunshine, this typically boosts our vitamin D levels. The NHS state on their website that the, “Government advice is that everyone should consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter.” With less sunlight and more time spent indoors our vitamin D levels drop affecting our immune systems, concentration levels as well as the ability to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. We can take our supplements but for those with gardens, it can seem like there is nothing to be done outside to tend these spaces in January. However, as Country Living magazine notes, “although the garden may look worse for wear, the delicate unfurling of a lone snowdrop is an indication spring is coming.” Just this morning I spotted a tiny snowdrop that had popped-up and appeared in the bottom of my garden. What’s more, January is the ideal month to start sowing chilli and pepper seeds as they have such a long growing season. You do not need a greenhouse for these, just a sunny windowsill will do. For more outside potting, rhubarb can also start to grow in January, “for an early crop of rhubarb, place a rhubarb forcer, or a large container (turned upside down), over the emerging rhubarb. By keeping the crown in darkness, you’re forcing the stalks to grow quickly as they search for light. After eight weeks, the stalks should be 20-30 cm long, sweet tasting and ready to eat.” Country Living also recommends pruning the leaves of your hellebore and winter pansies and David Austin Roses recommend that in January and February, “it’s time to prepare your roses for the year ahead and give them a prune.”

Of all of the research done, the most recent suggests that the best way to brighten the blue shadow of winter is to switch the mindset and language we have around it. A study by psychologist Kari Leibowitz found that our mindsets play a significant role in our ability to cope with winter. The study suggested that, “many of us might beat the blues by learning to notice and embrace the positive features of winter, such as the natural beauty that it brings.” It implied that by embracing the opportunity for cosiness and taking the time to acknowledge and appreciate things like the shift into soft light or frost on leaves and those snowdrops that start to appear. This may be akin to the link between ‘practising gratitude’ and improved mental health. In fact, “research has shown that consciously practising gratitude can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. In fact, studies have found that a single act of thoughtful gratitude produces an immediate 10% increase in happiness, and a 35% reduction in depressive symptoms.” 

We can’t wish the months away until the summer season returns, full of vitamin D and the fun of Dorset Adventure Park. We may not be able to swim in the lakes just yet, bounce our way over the inflatable obstacles and trampoline, or trek our way through the mud trail but we can take comfort knowing that those days are coming.  In the meantime, we can huddle like penguins and watch a really cheesy romcom. 

Words by Olivia Lowry.

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