As I glance out the window, it is gloomy outside, I am aware of how short the days are, and it’s gray and cold. A glimpse of spring feels far off into the distance. It is almost the middle of January and after a few trips around the sun, I have become familiar with what sets in for me and about 10 million other people at this time of year – the January/winter blues.

January blues are so common! Most people tend to deflate once the holiday season has passed – there’s a “holiday momentum” that begins to take place in September, slowly gains speed in October, and becomes full speed ahead by mid-November. Preparing for the holidays, gathering with friends and loved ones, parties, festive foods, giving and receiving holiday gifts, and offerings by mail suddenly stop in January. Schedules resume to normal, we go back to work, the kids are back in school, friends and relatives have left or we have returned home. So many of us find ourselves more in debt from traveling and gift giving, thicker around our midsections from the holiday foods and treats, and we have earnestly made New Year resolutions that quickly got broken. Once we stop and take a look around – it’s dark, the middle of winter, cold, and the feeling of doom takes over.

Are the winter or January blues always depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? No, winter blues is not depression nor is it Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), rather it’s your body and mind crying out for something it is needing. It differs from clinical depression which is a classified condition in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Psychiatric Disorders), in that depressive symptoms interfere with our daily functioning, can occur any time of the year, and may require medication and/or psychotherapy to treat effectively. SAD also differs in that it is believed to be triggered by a lack of sunlight during the late autumn and winter seasons but can occur in the summer, and is not limited to the only winter months. In the winter, shorter days can disrupt your body’s internal circadian rhythm, leading to a depressed mood.

January or winter blues is not a clinical diagnosis and doesn’t interfere with daily functioning, though there are depressive-like symptoms present such as low energy, feeling increased sad or blue mood, difficulty sleeping, appetite changes, loss of interest in things you normally enjoy, and lack of motivation. These are time-limited experiences and can be more easily and successfully managed with a few simple lifestyle and mindset changes. This presentation, albeit uncomfortable and unwanted, generally resolves naturally once spring arrives. Since spring feels like a long way off, why wait? Instead, here are some simple ways to change your mindset and strategies for taking action through the next several weeks with less suffering and hopefully more ease and peace.

  1. Go outdoors. Reduced sun exposure is one of the leading causes of January/winter blues. When the sun does peek out, take a few minutes and wander outside to soak up the vitamin D. Consider traveling to a sunny and warm location to reset your clock and soak up some rays.
  2. Get moving! Exercising at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week can improve your mood and increase energy levels. Exercising outdoors is especially great as it will allow you to breathe in the fresh air, enjoy nature, and soak up some sun if it is shining.
  3. Develop a regular sleep/wake routine that will allow you to stabilize your internal clock and awake feeling rested and energized instead of fatigued and unmotivated.
  4. Eat a balanced and nutrient-rich diet; consider taking a vitamin D supplement or adding vitamin D-rich foods into your diets such as fish, egg yolks, and mushrooms, or foods that are supplemented with Vitamin D such as milk, milk alternatives, and cereal.
  5. Keep a daily journal. Journaling is one of the easiest and best ways to improve mental well-being. Research shows that expressive writing is a great way to connect with what you’re thinking and feeling and identify what, if any issues you’ve been experiencing. Perhaps you will discover something that has been bothering you that was out of your awareness until you wrote it down on paper.
  6. Develop a practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is being present in the moment without judgment. Don’t judge yourself for anything you’re experiencing, winter is tough. Begin by treating yourself with tenderness, after all, you’re struggling. Setting up a practice of mindful breathing or meditation on a daily basis, even for just 5 minutes at a time, is helpful to build this skill and recall your ability to rely upon your breath. There are apps that have guided meditations that will make it easier to begin.
  7. Stay connected. Share how you’re feeling with friends and others in your support system as this is important to feel connected. Get you out of the house during the winter months – plan a trip to go skiing or ice skating, have guests over and cook dinner, order pizza, host a potluck, host a movie or game night, or enjoy an evening out on the town. It is important to share with your friends how you feel so that you’re not carrying it alone and you can receive care and validation. You never know, the person you share with might be going through the same thing but not telling anyone.

I invite you to continue to enter this year with choice and curiosity. It is not easy to make changes once the blues have set in, but I know with just a few simple steps, you will feel a shift in your mood and energy. Who knows, perhaps these practices will become routine and part of the regular care you provide yourself as they can be applied at any difficult time you encounter in order to move through with more ease. I’ll be seeing you on the rink!

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About the Author: Melissa Bennett Heinz
Melissa Bennett-Heinz obtained her master’s degree in clinical social work from Columbia University (Class of 2002) and is a graduate of Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy in New York City, NY. In addition to her background in Gestalt Therapy, she obtained her bachelor and master’s degrees from the esteemed conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, in New York City where she majored in Oboe Performance. Melissa completed cognitive behavioral studies under the tutelage of Dr. William Sanderson. She is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in the states of New York, Texas, Washington and North Carolina and has 20 years of specialized training and experience in the treatment of addiction, PTSD, sexual trauma, childhood abuse, chronic mental illness, and mood and anxiety disorders. Melissa brings her background as a professional classical musician and deep spirituality together in her unique approach to treatment in the creative and experiential therapy of Gestalt.

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