If you feel depressed in January, it’s not just in your head.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and post-holiday blues can hit hard after the parties and tinsel fade away.
The disorder, in fact, affects at least 10 million people in the United States.
Experts say that these January blues can be caused by a number of reasons.
However, there are also many life-changing ways to avoid these seasonal downswings.
“You can shift your thought patterns, so you won’t be subjected to them,” Dr. Don Mordecai, Kaiser Permanente’s national leader for mental and behavioral health, told Healthline.
SAD has biological underpinnings and is fueled by less light.
“Fewer daylight hours wreaks havoc on the body,” Anthony DeMaria, PhD, supervising psychologist at Mt. Sinai-West Hospital’s Center for Intensive Treatment for Personality Disorders, told Healthline. “A variety of neurochemicals are affected.”
In darkness, for example, the body produces more melatonin, causing sluggishness and decreased energy.
For unknown reasons, women are more prone to having SAD, DeMaria adds.
People between ages 18 and 30 are affected too, along with people closer to the Earth’s poles.
In Maine alone, 10 percent of the state’s inhabitants can have SAD, DeMaria noted.
To get some relief, try light therapy boxes. People can experience profound symptom relief, says DeMaria.
Aside from darker days and nights, post-holiday blues can also cloud minds and hearts.
“Many people are distracted and busy during the holiday,” Charlynn Ruan, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of Thrive Psychology, told Healthline. “But in January, that doesn’t happen. There are no decorations and music. And the bills also starting coming in.”
There’s a sense of what may be coming next, agrees DeMaria.
“There can be a spent feeling,” he says, “and not having enough emotional resources.”
Dealing with depression
The key to good emotional health at any time — and especially in January — is catching depression early on before it can spiral downward, experts say.
Several techniques can help increase well-being.
Start by practicing better self-care during holidays, says Ruan.
Schedule a massage. Join a support group. Surround yourself with good friends and lots of love. Or start a new activity like a spinning class.
“The good thing about self-care,” she adds, “is that it pays off.”
To nurture yourself, assess your atmosphere and see how it feels, says Diane Case, a life coach and author of “Write for Recovery.”
“Then you can add uplifting things like lighting, scents, or music,” she told Healthline.
Mindfulness also uplifts by using our senses to promote awareness of present moments, says Case. Washing dishes is a wonderful time to be mindful.
“Feel the flow of water on the skin,” she advises.
Or eat your food slowly and mindfully, noting the flavors. Mindfully scan your body to see where depression exists.
“Stay in the now and check in with your body and senses,” Case says. “Make sure you’re breathing.”
Kindness and gratitude
Use problems to connect with others — and heal.
Your experiences can help others, says Case, and lift your own mood.
Studies show that random acts of kindness can be potent psychological boosts because they trigger the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter.
The acts also shift our focus from ourselves to others so that we forget our problems.
“Connect in service,” Case says. “Science shows that the feeling good transmitter is greater for the giver than the receiver.”
Also, journaling can be the doorway to your inner thoughts and your ideal life, says Case.
She recommends writing faster than you think to get to the subconscious.
Don’t just journal about how miserable you are though, advises Mordecai.
Keep a gratitude journal. Research shows that an attitude of gratitude can increase happiness, improve sleep, and reduce depression.
Even the immune system is strengthened.
Gratitude is also a learned skill that can be honed over time. Write down a least five things you’re grateful for, says Case, and revisit it daily.
“Realizing how many gifts we have feels good,” she says.
Focus on things you’re grateful for, adds Mordecai. That can be yoga, a book club, walking with friends, or getting unconditional love from pets.
For an online, shareable journal, go to thnx4.org, created by the Greater Good Science Center at University of California at Berkeley.
“Don’t give your emotions too much reality,” says Mordecai. “The way you feel at any moment is not who you are.”