How To Cope With Depression In Winter, On So-Called 'Blue Monday' Or Otherwise

There's more to it than just 'turning that frown upside-down.'
The third Monday in January has unofficially been considered
The third Monday in January has unofficially been considered

Got the Monday blues? Today was once dubbed the saddest day of the year, or "Blue Monday," as determined by British psychologist, Dr. Cliff Arnall.

Arnall came up with a now-debunked pseudo-scientific formula in 2005 to calculate why we may feel a little down on the third Monday of January. HIs theory suggested that people get the blues this time of the year because your post-holiday credit card bills are piling up, your new year's resolutions may already be a thing of the past, and the dark days of winter could be freezing out your happy.

Arnall later admitted to getting paid for those proclamations, by a tourism company, no less.

Despite this marketing tactic, Julie Sabine, a psychotherapist and chief marketing officer at Inkblot Technologies, which offers free online video counselling for those struggling this time of the year, said that while there's no evidence that the third Monday of the month is actually the most depressing day, there is evidence that Canadians are least happy in January.

Is this latte half-happy or half-sad?
Is this latte half-happy or half-sad?

Another expert thinks Arnall's misstep has an upside, because it sheds light on the fact this time of year can be tough for many people. "Today helps to open up dialogue about the struggles some of us experience," said Megan Rafuse, a registered social worker and co-owner of the Toronto-based therapy clinic Shift Collab. " And [it] leads to opportunities for deeper exploration around the ways our mental health impacts us and those we care about."

Signs and symptoms of depression

The winter blues are common for those living in the northern hemisphere, as the shorter days and longer nights can lead to mood shifts and decreased energy.

If you find that your mood dips from late fall through winter, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder, said Sabine. SAD can trigger symptoms, such as increased sleeping or insomnia, weight loss or gain, feelings of being depressed, fatigue, isolation, loss of interest in things you previously enjoyed, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. It can affect your relationships and day-to-day functioning. With SAD, the aforementioned symptoms usually dissipate when spring comes.

Light therapy can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Light therapy can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

While symptoms of depression are very similar to SAD, it differs in that it can affect someone any time of the year. One in five Canadians suffer from depression.

"I think it's really important for us to have honest dialogues about depression and seasonal affective disorder," Rafuse told HuffPost Canada. "Living with a mental illness involves more than one day of impaired functioning."

The therapist said the first step in dealing with SAD or depression is acknowledging you might be experiencing it, and then opening up to those you feel safe talking to.

"Hold space for open dialogues with those you care about who you think might be dealing with a low mood and/or take the time to seek care for yourself," she added. "While reaching out for help can feel scary or overwhelming, it's never as bad as trying to deal with it alone."

Watch "Why Blue Monday might be considered the most depressing day of the year." Story continues below.

Get up and out!

"We have a tendency to want to stay inside on cold, dark days, when in reality, the more time we spend outside, the better we feel," said Sabine.

In The Brain's Way of Healing, author Dr. Norman Doidge emphasizes that natural sunlight can reduce levels of depression, and in some cases, physical pain.

Sabine said this is especially true if you're playing sports or exercising outside.

"People who exercise outdoors or do winter sports are a lot happier because they look forward to winter to do what they love, which includes being outdoors and getting active ― great ways to improve mental health," she said. "Try out a new winter sport or just go for a walk outside every day. Whatever you enjoy doing in the winter, do more of it!"

If you find the great outdoors during the winter a little hostile, light therapy can be immensely helpful, said Sabine.

Carb fuelling

Wonder why you might be craving all the pasta, bread and mashed potatoes during the winter? Carbs help instigate serotonin production, your body's internal feel-good chemical, said Sabine. But while cookies, crackers and chips might be the first thing you want to reach for when you're feeling down, they may not help your mood since they tend to cause spikes in blood sugar levels, which lead to crashes that can trigger hunger and cravings for more high-carb foods. They are also usually lacking in the essential nutrients our bodies need.

Ain't no party like a carb party!
Ain't no party like a carb party!

Try to stick to healthy grains such as brown rice, quinoa, brown rice pasta and oats. Healthy fats are also important to help stabilize your mood, and can be found in foods such as salmon, avocado and nuts, said Sabine.

Dr. Nahid Ahmedzadeh, a Toronto-based naturopath, also recommends pumpkin seeds and walnuts as a good source of essential fatty acids. And veggies and fruits are also your friend in maintaining a healthy diet and mood. And, drink plenty of fluids, since dehydration can lead to low mood and lack of energy. Try to limit alcohol consumption, as it's a depressant.

Ahmedzadeh also recommended boosting your immune system with vitamin C and D, Siberian ginseng, or astragalus.

Mindfulness matters

Practicing mindfulness and gratitude are also sure ways to help stave off the winter blues, said Rafuse. Acknowledging what and who you have in your life makes it harder to focus on feeling down.

"Focus on the good things that winter brings: sitting by the fire, doing puzzles, watching movies with loved ones, and drinking hot chocolate for instance," said Sabine. "And connect with others. People who are connected to others are happier so make an effort to see family and friends.

Depression and SAD are treatable. If you are struggling, there are lots of resources to support you such as Kids Help Phone and, or via the resources listed below.

Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, visit CAMH's resource to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you're concerned about.

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