Do you struggle at this time of year? You’re not alone. ‘Blue Monday’ – the third Monday in January – is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. Although there’s little evidence to back that up, there’s no denying that this is a challenging time of year for many of us. So if you’re experiencing a seasonal slump, you’re in the right place for some tips on how to beat the winter blues.

What is Blue Monday?

Christmas is over – and needs to be paid for. The days are short, dark and cold. It’s a long time since payday – and until the next bank holiday. We’ve started to abandon our New Year’s resolutions and lose motivation. The weather’s dreadful. Oh, and there’s still the ongoing problem of a global pandemic – which is always worse in winter. No wonder you’re struggling!

These seasonal factors (apart from the more recent challenge of a pandemic) are all supposed to come together on ‘Blue Monday’ – the third Monday of the year – and make it the most depressing day of the year. It’s even been calculated by a psychologist using an ‘equation’. The first Blue Monday was 24th January 2005, after a psychology tutor at Cardiff University was asked to work out the most depressing day of the year – by a travel company – and put his name to a press release. This was then used by Sky Travel to encourage people to buy holidays. Now, it’s an annual event.

It’s a great story. But it’s nonsense. It’s pseudoscience and a hangover of an old marketing campaign – but a lot of us have bought into it. You’ll see it trending all over Twitter. Blue Monday is a myth – and mental health charity Mind calls it a dangerously misleading one. A statement on their website says: “Blue Monday contributes to damaging misconceptions about depression and trivialises an illness that can be life threatening.”

Depression affects 1 in 6 people. It doesn’t last just a day, and doesn’t work to a calendar. It can occur at any time of year. But, while depression can’t be tied to a single day, for many of us this time of year has its challenges. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a Thing (read our post on how to combat seasonal affective disorder for some practical tips). And the winter blues are real – if milder. And there are ways to beat both, whatever the severity of your symptoms.

Winter blues symptoms

Some people dismiss SAD as ‘just’ winter blues. But SAD can be a debilitating condition – albeit one you can get treatment for, adapt to and learn to live with. ‘Winter blues’ may also be used to describe a milder version of SAD – and it affects about 20% of us. Look out for the following symptoms:

  • Tiredness, feeling lethargic and sleepy during the day
  • Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • Low mood or irritability
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • Social withdrawal
  • Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight.

You won’t necessarily have all these symptoms – and they will tend to be milder for winter blues than for SAD. And you’re likely to feel a whole lot better with a few simple lifestyle adjustments.

How to beat the winter blues – 10 ways to feel better in the darker months

Like the more severe SAD, winter blues can be tackled, treated, minimised and lived with. You just need a bit of careful planning and preparation – and lots of self-care. Try the following.

  1. Have a chat. Maintaining social contact – even via phone, text, WhatsApp or Zoom – is a great way to maintain mental health. There have been suggestions to turn Blue Monday into Brew Monday – with mental health charity Samaritans encouraging a chat with friends and family over a cup of tea. You might also use Blue Monday as an opportunity to open a conversation about mental health with a friend – along the lines of ‘Today is just another day – but I’m here if you’re struggling and need to talk.’
  2. Retreat, relax and reflect. While being with others might be helpful, you don’t have to accept social invitations if you don’t feel up to it or have the energy at this time of year. Do what’s right for you. This can also be a time to care for and repair ourselves. Katherine May’s Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times is a comforting meditation on this theme.
  3. Get outside. Even on a dull day, it’s lighter outside than in. Natural daylight – or a lightbox that mimics it – is one of the main treatments for SAD. But even for milder winter blues symptoms, it will help enormously. Research shows that a one-hour walk in the middle of the day is an effective way to beat the winter blues. And being in nature is proven to improve our mental health.
  4. Move around. You’ll also reap the mental health benefits of exercise if you get outdoors for a walk, run or cycle. When you exercise, your body releases feel-good hormones, endorphins and serotonin, which give you a natural boost.
  5. Switch off. Spending your day doom-scrolling through Twitter, or comparing yourself to other people’s (carefully curated) ‘perfect’ lives on Instagram won’t do anything to improve your mood. Take a break from social media if you find it’s negatively affecting your mood. And don’t take your phone to bed with you!
  6. Get a good night’s sleep. Tiredness can be a symptom of depression. But feeling tired all the time can lead to low mood too. Resolve to adopt some healthy sleep habits this year. It will help you beat the winter blues – but also stand you in good stead for the rest of the year.
  7. Cut down on alcohol. Whether or not you’re doing ‘Dry January’, cutting down on alcohol is good for your physical and mental health. If you’re having a bad day, it might be tempting to have a drink at the end of it to boost your mood. But the effect is brief. Alcohol is a depressant, and will lower your mood longer term. Drink water and stay hydrated.
  8. Go easy on yourself. You don’t have to meet – or set – tough, unachievable goals for your New Year’s resolutions. Try mastering a new skill that will give you pleasure throughout the year instead. Or make your resolution to look after yourself, and do more things you enjoy. Alternatively, don’t make any at all! You don’t need that additional pressure in your life.
  9. Meditate. Start your day with a short mindfulness meditation. This will give you an idea of what emotional state you’re in, so you can plan a day that’s sensitive to that.
  10. Practice self-care. Create your own ‘self-soothing’ kit. Fill it with items you find comforting, using each of your senses. For example a soft blanket, a scented candle, soothing herbal teas, a notepad to write down your thoughts and so on. And commit to doing one thing every day that’s just for you. Do things that nourish you and provide you with a sense of wellbeing and enjoyment. The Danish concept of hygge – a sort of cosiness – is a great approach to self-care in the winter.

Look after yourself this winter – and remind yourself that the days are lengthening, and spring is coming. And don’t forget that, if your symptoms go beyond mild winter blues, and you find yourself struggling with depression, plenty of help is available.

You can speak to your GP, who may recommend antidepressants or therapy. Talking therapies have been shown to be very effective at treating depression. You can get a taste of four different therapeutic approaches available from our Self-care course ‘Deal with Depression’. And we’re here for you if you want to get started with online therapy.

The winter can be tough – but depression can strike anytime, and be mild, moderate or severe. But with the right help and support, you can overcome it and live your best life.