Blue Monday may not be real, but the mental health issues it represents are
When I meet Kate Andrews in a NAIT cafeteria to talk about beating the winter doldrums – and Blue Monday – she picks a table by the windows. It’s -14 C outside, but the sun is shining after a couple of days behind a curtain of clouds.
“I’m actually very strategic about where I place myself during the day,” says the Personal Fitness Trainer instructor. “We could have sat at that dark table in the corner but we’re not getting the same benefits for our mood just by seeing that light.”
A skiing and snowshoeing enthusiast, Andrews loves winter but can be laid low by plummeting temperatures and decreased daylight. And even though she knows Blue Monday was created by the travel industry proclaiming the third Monday of January to be the year’s most depressing day, she believes it represents a genuine, Northern Hemisphere affliction.
“As somebody who does suffer through the winter, I don’t think it’s to be taken lightly,” says Andrews. Here are other ways she gets strategic as she waits for the milder, brighter days of spring.
Shine a light
With fewer hours of daylight in winter – and less intense light – Andrews uses what she calls her “happy lamp.” At the side of her desk is a light that mimics sunlight to help treat seasonal affective disorder, a kind of depression tied to changes in the seasons.
She turns it on for about 10 minutes each morning. “If it’s a little greyer out, I’ll do it in the afternoon as well.”
More simply, she lets the light in whenever and wherever she can. At the start of teaching a class, for example, the first thing she does is open the blinds. “I always have daylight coming in.”
Andrews knows cold, dark days promote hibernation. But she also knows the positive mental impacts of exercise. Movement and activity can decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and increase dopamine and other hormones related to pleasure. “They naturally elevate your mood.”
Andrews opts for yoga or hard work outs. She avoids mall walking, which almost inevitably leads to shopping. “It can feel good at the time but it can cause problems after.”
The trouble with sugar and booze
“I believe in sticking to unprocessed foods,” says Andrews. This helps prevent the emotional and physical highs and crashes that can come with refined sugar and might exacerbate the winter blahs.
Similarly, she has given up casual drinking, forgoing alcohol entirely. “In general, it has helped my moods stay much more balanced,” she says.
“I never like saying that to people because it plays such a huge role in our society.” But after seeing the positive impacts of avoiding the depressant, she’s “not going back, because it has made that much of a difference.”
Andrews isn’t being admonishing when she recommends being grateful for what you have. Taking time to reflect daily on the good things in life (she writes them in a journal) has been shown to leave people feeling more positive about the present and optimistic about the future. “It helps release those good hormones as well,” says Andrews.
To take the edge off the final weeks of winter, Andrews leaves it all behind. Each February or March, she thaws out by booking a trip somewhere warm. Even the planning helps: “it’s exciting – that anticipation can also help with mood.” Acknowledging that this requires money, she saves up for travel each year.
Get by with a little help from your friends
Andrews strives for honesty about her feelings and what she needs to feel better at any time, Blue Monday or otherwise.
As a parent, for example, she might need help finding a couple of free hours for a mood-improving, child-free workout. She knows friends and family can make this happen and she's not afraid to ask.
In many cases, all she needs is the presence of others. When winter’s weighing on you, “Be around people that make you happy,” she says. Reach out. “Hugs give us good hormones flushing through our brains.”