- Experts say it’s common for people to feel depressed or downcast during the cold, dark days of January.
- They say it’s important for people to recognize the symptoms of this seasonal disorder.
- They recommend people get outdoors, eat healthy, and get together with friends as ways to combat the January blues.
There’s a feeling that sweeps over many people this time of year, and it might be summed up best with a twist on a famed quote from the cult movie classic “Office Space.”
“Looks like somebody’s got a case of the Januarys.”
January is the time of year when the combination of less daylight, colder weather, less activity, and a letdown from the holiday vibe can lead to feelings of isolation, sadness, and in extreme situations, depression.
Why does it happen?
Experts point to a combination of things.
It’s almost a “perfect storm” of seasonal happenings, according to Marna W. Brickman, LGSW, a psychotherapist with Spectrum Behavioral Health in Annapolis, Maryland.
“There are the shorter days, the colder weather that means people are isolating themselves more, the less physical activity that can come with this time of year, and seasonal affective disorder,” she told Healthline.
A combination of some or all of these factors, Brickman said, can lead to that January blues vibe and even depression.
Leigh Leader of Michigan knows the January feeling.
The mother of two in her early 30’s battles a case of the Januarys each year.
“You know what it feels like when you look out your window sometimes and just see that dull, snow, cold, gray world? That’s what it feels like,” she told Healthline. “Some days I wake up and just want to stay under the covers and not move. But I have two small daughters, so I have to.”
Phyllis Perkins, a mother of teens also from Michigan, fights the feeling as well.
“Before I realized I could take action, all I wanted to do this time of year was get the kids from school, cook dinner, and then go to bed,” she told Healthline.
For a while, Perkins thought she was physically ill. But after a panel of tests by her physician showed no physical issue, she said they “began to put the pieces together” and find a way to help her improve her January mood.
So what’s a person like Leader or Perkins to do?
There are steps you can take now, and proactively in years to come, to better your frame of mind and mood in the winter months.
Brickman points to elevated fatigue, oversleeping, isolating yourself, and a sense of helplessness as symptoms people should be aware of.
She says they should take note if they experience any or all of them.
What could be causing those symptoms and what pushes it over to depression?
“There is an underlying neurological basis for major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, in which people have difficulty regulating the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which is responsible for balancing mood,” Dr. Ash Nadkarni, associate psychiatrist and director of wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told Healthline.
Nadkarni explained that people may also have difficulty with overproduction of melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland that responds to darkness by causing sleepiness.
“In the winter, melatonin production increases, causing sleepiness and lethargy, she said. “Both decreased serotonin and increased melatonin impact circadian rhythms, or the body’s internal 24-hour clock, which responds to light-dark changes that occur daily and throughout each of the seasons,” she said.
In people with depressive disorders, she said, “the circadian signal that indicates a seasonal change in day length has been found to be timed differently, challenging the body’s ability to adjust.”
In other words, our bodies crave warmth, sun, and light.
There are steps you can take now if you’re feeling blue, said Brickman.
“Find natural daylight. Find the sun if you can,” she said.
Brickman also suggests investing in a light box, in particular one that treats mood disorders and not skin disorders.
One added suggestion: change your diet.
Even healthy eaters can shift to a looser dietary pattern in the holidays and in cold, dark January eating that way can magnify sad feelings.
“High-fat, sugary diets are tough on the mind,” Brickman said. “People don’t think enough about food and how it impacts all of this.”
She also suggests looking at using eating and food in a positive way by making plans and meeting up with friends for meals.
“Eat socially,” she said. “Everything is better with company.”
Perkins uses light therapy. Her physician suggested replacing her kitchen lights with bright 75 watt bulbs and she’s found that helped.
She also has another suggestion: pick up or reclaim a hobby. For her, crafting does wonderings.
“It’s sounds so silly but something simple like this really can help,” Perkins said. “For me, crafting keeps my mind occupied and makes me feel useful, inspired and busy.”
It’s also important to report your symptoms to your physician or therapist and take any medical action they may deem necessary.
“Seeking treatment is important,” said Nadkarni. “Antidepressants, light therapy, vitamin D to replete any deficiency, and psychotherapy have all been found to be evidenced-based options for treatment.”
“Talk therapy is a great treatment for this,” she said. “Antidepressants, if needed, can also be a fix for 90 days or until the days extend and weather changes.”
Leader’s physician does something Brickman suggests — ups her dosage of vitamin D for this time of year.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I never really believed something like that would make a difference until I tried it. It really helps.”
Signs that you may sink into a case of January seasonal affective disorder or actual depression may begin to show months before, Nadkarni said.
“When major depressive disorder has a seasonal pattern, it most often tends to be associated with an increase in symptoms in October or November, when light patterns first begin to shift,” she said.
What to do?
Nadkarni says pay attention to the signs and be aware of them possibly showing up in your life.
When you see one or more, proactively battle those feelings with these suggestions.
- Get outdoors, even on cloudy days.
- Eat more whole foods versus processed foods.
- Enjoy the company of others, even if you have to force yourself.
- Pick up a hobby such as winter skiing.
- Keep your physician up to speed so they can guide you should more aggressive treatment be needed.
How is one to be motivated to do that?
Both Perkins and Leader say people should simply try to avoid the painful sadness they’ve fought in the past.
Leader has one more tip: just do it.
“I have two small children, so I really have no choice but to try to stay ahead of this and focus on not having it drag me down,” she said. “Having two little kids to get out of bed and take care of every day is motivation to be mentally healthy for that.”
For people without children, she urges them to find a place and a way you are needed.
“That makes it all so much more important, and that makes it get your focus,” she said.