Every year, the third Monday in January is spoken about as ‘the most depressing day of the year’ or Blue Monday and often associated to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) owing to ties with cold, bleak weather and the time after Christmas and new year. But where did Blue Monday come from and how does it relate to SAD?

Coined by psychologist, Cliff Arnall in 2004, the third Monday in January is said to be the most depressing day of the year. A mixture of bad weather, financial debt and low mood after the Christmas and new year period comes together to make what we call Blue Monday.

How does Blue Monday have similarities with SAD?

SAD is a depressive disorder, that many people think of as being specific to winter, but you can actually experience SAD at any time of year, but it is often associated to drastic changes in light; so, summer and winter.

Symptoms that come with SAD include:

  • low mood
  • lethargy
  • irritability
  • lack of motivation
  • difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • changes in appetite
  • losing interest in socialising

For many, a lack of natural light and shorter days can aggravate SAD, which is why it is commonly thought of as ‘winter depression’. The NHS states that a lack of sunlight can affect how your hypothalamus works, which is the area of the brain that regulates a hormone called melatonin. When levels of melatonin increase, you may feel sleepy and levels of serotonin, the ‘happy’ hormone often go down in conjunction.

Whether in summer or in winter, drastic changes to light can also affect your body clock, having a knock on affect on your energy and sleep.

It’s easy to feel as though the symptoms of SAD or the low feeling around Blue Monday and during the period after Christmas and new year is inevitable. However, just a few simple adjustments to your daily activity, where you can implement them, might alleviate the above symptoms.

What can I do to manage Blue Monday feelings and symptoms of SAD?

Replace your morning coffee with a low caffeine or herbal tea

High levels of caffeine have actually been found to somewhat supress levels of serotonin as well as causing some people to feel anxiety after consuming it. Coffee has a lot more caffeine in it than tea, and although it might feel as though it is giving you energy immediately after drinking it, the time following that initial rush or the ‘crash’ can actually reduce your energy levels. Tea such as black tea or oolong is still caffeinated without containing too much caffeine, while herbal teas containing ginger, ginseng and turmeric are all said to aid concentration and focus.

Tips from a therapist working with Turning Point

Holly, a therapist and psychological wellbeing practitioner for Livelife and Turning Point says we should use Blue Monday to “futureproof” our mental health. Holly provides support at Livelife for anxiety, sleep difficulties and stress. Her top tips for those feeling the effects of Blue Monday and SAD are:

  • "Start a gratitude journal – write down a few things each night you’re grateful for that day."
  • "Arrange a walk, dinner or phone chat with friends or family – being with other people is important for wellbeing."
  • "Challenge negative thoughts by asking yourself “is this a helpful way for me to think?”, “how do I know for sure that this thought is true?” or “what advice would I give to a friend in this situation?”."
  • "Set aside just 5 minutes in your working day for a healthy activity to boost motivation. You’ll feel more focused afterwards."
  • "Practise breathing techniques to calm your mind and improve your mood. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, breathe out for 5 seconds, and repeat. Notice how your body feels and the motion of your breathing."

Commenting on these simple everyday “mind habits”, Holly said: “The temptation at the start of the year is to try and overhaul your life in one go. This can leave you feeling overwhelmed on top of existing stresses like going back to work. Or you may just want to be inactive by sitting in front of the TV which can also affect your mood.”

“A better way to look after mental health and wellbeing is to incorporate a few simple techniques into your daily routine. Focusing on your breathing, taking charge of negative thinking and spending time with those who care about you can make a big difference.”

“Everyone feels a bit down especially at this time of year, but you can help reduce your risk of developing depression. Adopting healthy ‘mind’ habits will improve your outlook now and for the future.”

As Holly said, new year resolutions and the culture around them can make you feel pressured to change your mood, your perspective or your habits as soon as the calendar changes to January 1st. In reality, real, sustainable change has to happen incrementally and over time. Be patient with yourself and focus on just a couple of small things you can do every day.