In the depths of January – a month often associated with broken resolutions, daunting credit card statements, and gloomy winter weather – a particular date looms large. This year, on January 15, we face ‘Blue Monday’ – dubbed the most depressing day of the year. This seemingly exaggerated label for a single day, however, unravels into a stark reality when we confront Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the broader ‘winter blues.’
The toll on mental wellness is a pressing concern, particularly as the number of Canadians living with a major depressive disorder has increased by 62 per cent since 2012. Whether ‘Blue Monday’ is a genuine reflection of our collective mood or merely serves as a marketing ploy, the discourse around mental health during the winter months goes beyond any gimmick.
“The light of winter is the poetry of patience.” – Unknown
Breaking Down Blue Monday
‘Blue Monday’ is the brainchild of researcher Dr. Cliff Arnall and is based on a formula that factors in weather conditions, debt levels, time since Christmas, time since failing New Year’s resolutions, low motivational levels, and the urge to take action. Arnall’s motive? To promote a travel agency and encourage weary souls to escape winter’s grasp through a vacation.
This formula, however, has drawn criticism for its lack of scientific backing and for the fact that designating a specific day as the “most depressing” simplifies mental well-being and could perpetuate negative stereotypes about mental health. While ‘Blue Monday’ may have been coined as part of a marketing campaign, it has sparked awareness and dialogue around mental health in winter, particularly seasonal depression, and serves as a gateway to meaningful conversations about our collective well-being.
Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is recognized as a distinct subtype of clinical depression in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) notes that SAD accounts for 10 per cent of all depression cases, with 18 per cent of Canadians experiencing some degree of SAD in their lifetime.
During specific times of the year, particularly in winter when daylight diminishes, SAD manifests as a depressive episode, beginning in fall. Symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, hopelessness, irritability, social withdrawal, and changes in appetite.
The key factor contributing to SAD is the fluctuation of daylight, which influences serotonin levels. During summer and fall, when daylight is abundant, serotonin levels are higher, while winter’s reduced daylight results in decreased serotonin levels. Scientific research correlates winter depression with diminished exposure to daylight. SAD is a more severe form of seasonal mood disorder compared to the milder and temporary feelings of sadness or lethargy that may be experienced with the “winter blues”.
Suggested Video: 6 Signs You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Why Winter Takes a Toll on Mood
As winter sets in, natural sunlight becomes a limited asset with shorter, darker days. Sunlight is a critical regulator for our body’s internal clock and influences serotonin and melatonin levels – neurotransmitters linked to well-being and sleep.
Reduced sunlight can lower serotonin, impacting mood, and disrupt melatonin, impacting sleep. Limited exposure may also lead to a deficiency in vitamin D, with some studies suggesting a connection to mood disorders. Colder weather also often means less time outdoors and fewer social interactions, which can contribute to feelings of isolation and lethargy.
“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” – Aristotle
Tips for Beating the Winter Blues
Recognizing signs of depression in winter – whether related to SAD or the broader “winter blues” – is so important for timely treatment and preventing any negative impact of symptoms on daily functioning.
Here are some practical ways to uplift your mood during winter months:
- Practice Mindfulness: Meditation and deep-breathing exercises can help manage stress and improve overall mental well-being. Mindfulness practices have been associated with a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. When your thoughts are racing, come back to the present moment and focus on what you’re experiencing right now. Practice your belly breathing and observe three things you can see, hear and feel in this moment. Allow the answers to come to you and you’ll quickly demonstrate your ability to be mindful and present. This 1-minute grounding meditation can help you practice being mindful. ca also has helpful tips and resources on their website including how to do a mindful body scan and mindful breathing. It’s easy to forget to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Just remember, you can’t help others if you can’t breathe.
- Stay Social: It’s tempting to “hibernate” indoors in the warmth of our homes, but it’s important to resist this temptation and seek out social connections. Positive social interactions release neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are linked to mood regulation and happiness. Having friends, family, or a support network to share feelings and experiences provides comfort and understanding during tough times. Winter, with its shorter days, can lead to increased isolation, but social interactions help counteract loneliness and create a sense of belonging.
- Get Outdoors & Get Moving: Despite the chilly temperatures, bundling up and embracing outdoor exercise can really boost your mood. Research shows that outdoor physical activity in natural environments is associated with greater reductions in depressive symptoms compared to indoor exercise. Studies also suggest that regular outdoor exercise is associated with a strengthened immune system and cognitive benefits. Try starting your day with a brisk morning walk to help kickstart your metabolism, explore nearby trails for nature hikes, and take part in winter sports like skating or skiing for a full-body workout.
- Try Light Therapy: Winter days can be grey and gloomy, making sunlight a precious rarity. Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, involves exposure to a bright light that simulates natural sunlight, which stimulates the production of serotonin. It’s commonly used to treat SAD and other conditions where a lack of sunlight exposure may contribute to mood disturbances. Researchers have been studying the impact of light therapy for over four decades. Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal and his research colleagues conducted pioneering studies on the effectiveness of bright light exposure in treating winter-related mood disturbances. By mimicking natural sunlight, light therapy helps align the body's circadian rhythm, reducing disruptions to the internal clock.
Suggested Video: Self-Care and the Winter Blues
Beyond Blue Monday
While Blue Monday's scientific legitimacy may be up for debate, what really matters are the discussions it stirs up about mental health, especially when it comes to SAD and winter wellness. Instead of buying into the idea of the "most depressing day," let's focus on tackling the actual challenges that winter throws at our well-being. Whether we're combatting SAD, acknowledging the impact of winter on mental health, or dealing with exposure to the marketing noise around Blue Monday, the heart of the matter lies in prioritizing self-care, ensuring that our mental health thrives even in the coldest of seasons.
Written by Rosie Del Campo
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