The start of the New Year often symbolizes fresh endeavors and revived goals, but the post-holiday rush is part of a common mood shift known as the “January blues.”
If you’ve ever heard of Blue Monday, you’re familiar with the concept of the January blues.
Historically, Blue Monday, generally the third Monday in January, has been touted as statistically the most depressing day of the year.
A number of factors were thought to contribute to this dire day, including weather, cold temperatures, reduced daylight hours, holiday absence, and financial stability.
While researchers now know the formula created to pinpoint Blue Monday was a media hoax, many people do still experience a lull in mood once January hits.
What are the January blues?
The January blues describe a common period of low mood that occurs during the first month of the New Year.
For many people, this is the time when the holidays are finally concluded, and life is settling back into its regular routine. For a part of the world, it also marks the start of severely limited daylight, colder temperatures, and more time spent indoors.
The January blues can mean something different for everyone.
For some people, it may represent general dysphoria or the start of a depressive episode, but other negative emotions can be more common for certain people.
“While the January blues is most frequently characterized by depression, it can also include increased feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame, as well as low self-esteem,” says Saba Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Los Angeles.
Why is depression common in January?
There are a number of reasons why your mood might feel down in January, and experiencing a low mood doesn’t necessarily mean you’re experiencing depression.
Kathryn Werner, a certified physician assistant from Prattville, Alabama, explains the following factors can all contribute to feeling down this time of year:
- shorter days/less sunlight
- decreased physical activity
- the decline of social stimulation
- absence of holiday anticipation/excitement
- social event fatigue
Additionally, she says, the modern world is less accepting of what was once acknowledged as a natural dip in energy levels during the winter months.
“Now, with electricity, heating and air systems, and our productivity-driven world, we don’t really accept this as a ‘normal,’ healthy change which creates feelings of shame and frustration around what could be viewed as a beneficial period of rest and reflection,” says Werner.
Symptoms of SAD vs. the January blues
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), now known as major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, can also be a reason why you experience depression in January.
Both major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern and the January blues can share symptoms of:
- low mood
- general fatigue
- sleep disturbances
- eating changes
- loss of libido
- social withdrawal
- difficulty concentrating
- low self-esteem
Major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern is a formal disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR). To receive this diagnosis, you must meet specific clinical criteria, including:
- symptoms cause clinically significant impairment to important areas of function
- depressive symptoms begin and end during a specific season every year for at least 2 years
- over a lifetime, seasonal depression years must outnumber years without seasonal depression
- depressive symptoms do not persist past specific seasons
Major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern can occur during any season, though it’s most commonly seen during the winter months.
How to cope with the January blues
The January blues don’t have to cast a shadow over the recent season of joy. You can help limit experiences of low mood with some helpful tactics that can help you cope with depression in the winter months.
1. Keeping track of your social meter
Feeling the holiday event fatigue? If you’re an introvert, this may be a season of exhaustion for you. While January offers a break, it might not be soon enough.
Taking time for self-care and solitude during the months leading up to January can help keep those events from overwhelming your social meter.
On the flip side, if you thrive in the world of parties and holiday festivities, January’s quietness can be a letdown.
You can keep your social needs met by keeping up with close friends through coffee dates, luncheons, and even volunteer work.
Werner indicates, “There is so much need year-round, but especially in the winter, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, animal shelters, nursing homes, and many other organizations have increased demands. Win-win!”
2. Getting sunlight
If part of the January blues is related to major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, sunlight exposure may help.
“Get as much sunlight as you can,” suggests Danielle Dellaquila, MSW, a licensed social worker from New York City. “Try to get outside each day and open the curtains and blinds. Take in the natural sunlight during these darker winter months.”
3. Taking a break from social media
Lurie recommends stepping away from social media during times of low mood.
“Social media can be a wonderful place of connection and community, but it can also promote unhealthy mindsets and culture, specifically diet and exercise culture,” she says. “In fact, many folks experience the development of or worsening symptoms of body dysmorphia and depression after engaging in social media designed to promote healthy lifestyles.”
4. Planning something to look forward to in January
“Plan things in advance that you enjoy. If you know you are a person who tends to feel down during January, it is helpful to plan some fun activities or outings for that month so that there is something to look forward to,” says Dellaquila.
This can be a social event, like a game night for friends, or it can be a solo trip, like visiting your favorite book store and coffee shop.
5. It’s OK to experience low mood
Part of banishing the January blues may be accepting it’s okay and natural to feel down this time of year.
“Reframing this as a much-needed period of rest and reflection can allow individuals to have grace with themselves and those around them and build habits that support this time,” Werner says.
The January blues can be a natural time of low mood after the holiday rush, or they can be a part of a broader condition like major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern.
You may be able to combat January depression through strategic social planning, sunlight exposure, and self-care. But if symptoms are preventing you from enjoying daily life, speaking with a mental health professional may help.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed., text rev.).
- Beating the winter blues. (2022).
- Cotterell D. (2010). Pathogenesis and management of seasonal affective disorder.
- Dellaquila D. (2022). Personal interview.
- Lurie S. (2022). Personal interview.
- Melrose S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: An overview of assessment and treatment approaches.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). (n.d.).
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). (2020).
- Werner K. (2022). Personal interview.