Blue Monday: What is it and what does it mean for midlife women?

Blue Monday

The third Monday of the month of January has come to be known as Blue Monday. The day was originally named by the psychologist Cliff Arnall in 2005, who came up with a formula to pinpoint the most ‘depressing’ day of the year. This was based on weather conditions, time since Christmas, debt, failing new year resolutions, and the premise that, as the Boomtown Rats famously sang in the 80’s – we ‘don’t like Mondays.’

While Arnall’s formula has been criticised for being unscientific it is hardly surprising that with Christmas out of the way and the consequent belt-tightening, minimal hours of daylight, cold weather and New Year’s resolutions wearing off many of us struggle through the day.

For those of us in midlife, this can bring our day-to-day reality into sharper view and leave us questioning whether it reflects what we want. These feelings can be exacerbated by hormonal changes which may deepen any low feelings.

Whatever your views on Blue Monday it is helpful to understand some of the ways our moods and wellbeing can be affected at this time of year and find ways to help ourselves on those days when we feel down, lack motivation and would rather go back to bed.

Let’s look at some of the factors used in Arnall’s formula and how we can help to manage them.

Lack of Daylight

Research from the University of Southampton found that at least 90% of adults experience subtle changes in moods, energy and sleep when the seasons change. In its most severe form this is known as SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder – and this is thought to affect about 7% of the population. Others may experience milder symptoms and what is described as ‘winter blues’. Although the exact causes of SAD and ‘winter blues’ are not fully understood it is thought that sunlight affects some of the brain’s chemicals and hormones, including those that affect mood, appetite and sleep.

 Most of our vitamin D intake comes from exposure to sunlight and so during the winter months when we have minimal daylight hours we may be a greater risk of vitamin D deficiency. People with darker skin need longer sun exposure in order for their bodies to produce vitamin D. This essential vitamin supports healthy bones and a deficiency has been linked with low moods.

If you notice that you feel flat, less motivated and low on days with poor light here are some things that can help:

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  • Ensure that you get outside every day for at least 20 minutes – before noon is best if you can

  • Light therapy or light boxes have been shown in some studies to be effective in treating the symptoms. This involves sitting in front of or beneath a light box that produces a very bright light. These are available commercially or you can discuss it with your GP.

  • Ensure you are getting enough vitamin D. Food such as eggs, meat and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines all contain vitamin D. If you are concerned that you might be deficient talk to your GP, or take a vitamin D supplement.

New Year’s Resolution’s

It is reported that a mere 8% of us succeed in keeping our New Year’s resolutions so if you have already abandoned yours you are not alone. Perhaps we made too many, they were over-complicated or too grand to maintain.

If you want to make changes keep your goals simple, avoid goals that are too vague and focus on small attainable goals throughout the year. Psychologist Lynn Bufka says ‘remember, it is not the extent of the change that matters, but rather the act of recognising lifestyle change is important and working towards it, one step at a time.’

Some studies suggest that our willpower is stronger when it is aligned with our inner beliefs, goals and drives so we are more likely to succeed when we strive for what is meaningful.

 Debt

The Bank of England reports that the average UK household spends an additional £500 in December on Christmas and this extra spend can leave us stressed and paying for it in January. If you are facing debt after the festivities the important thing is to take steps to make things manageable again. Consider talking to an experienced debt advisor who can advise you about debt management plans and offer basic budgeting advice.

Time Since Christmas

We may experience a comedown once it hits us that the festive fun is over for another year. It is no surprise then that January is the most popular time to book a holiday as we crave something pleasurable to look forward to. Use this time to make positive plans, allow yourself to dream and make room for things that bring happiness. And don’t forget the small pleasures during the winter days – whether it is seeing friends, a crisp winter stroll, a delicious warming meal or hunkering down with a great book or TV show.

Am I just feeling low, depressed or menopausal?

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The notion of Blue Monday has been criticised for undermining the seriousness of clinical depression. We hear the word ‘depression’ so much these days that it can be confusing to work out whether you are experiencing depression, having menopausal symptoms or are simply feeling a bit low.

Feeling sad, angry or upset can be an appropriate response to our life circumstances and some reflection, self care and positive support is often all we need to get by. Clinical depression is characterised by persistent low feelings and involves a range of symptoms. These are just some of the things you might experience if you are depressed, although this list is not exhaustive:

  • Continuous low mood or sadness

  • Feeling hopeless and helpless

  • Low self esteem

  • Feeling tearful, guilt-ridden, irritable or intolerant of others

  • Lack of motivation or interest in things, fatigue or lack of interest in sex

  • Difficulty making decisions, poor concentration

  • Unable to experience enjoyment

  • Persistent anxiety or worry

  • Suicidal thoughts or self-harm

  • Change in appetite

  • Unexplained aches and pains

  • Disturbed sleep

  • Struggling with everyday activities such as work

  • A wish to withdraw

Much of what is described in this list has also been attributed to peri or menopause and so it can be confusing to know what is going on. To understand things you need to take into account your personal history with depression and mental health, current life circumstances and hormonal changes. Everybody is unique and what helps one person may differ from what helps another.

If you see your GP they should consider your personal history, circumstances and preferences. They may refer you for talking therapies, suggest HRT or anti-depressants. Some women find that HRT can make a significant difference to their moods.

Some women are reporting mixed experiences when meeting their GP’s, with some well informed about the menopause and some less so, so it is worth doing some of your own research. There is an ‘Easy HRT Prescribing Guide’ on the Primary Care Women’s Health Forum website www.pcwhf.co.uk if you want to learn more.

Finally

There is something about the darker, cooler winter days that invites us to turn inwards, to embrace a form of hibernation, eat warm food and seek out comfort until the brighter days. This provides a good opportunity to pause and take stock, reflect on what isn’t working in our lives and think about what changes we want to make it to live the kind of life we desire. There is wisdom in the darkness and if we pay attention we can find hope.