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'Saddest day of the year' may be a myth, but experts say winter blues are real

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January in the Northern Hemisphere means short, cold days and long, cold nights. The sunny days of July are half a year away, but bank statements reminding people of December's excesses are close at hand.

The first calendar month is widely known for being a difficult time of year. But self-styled "psychologist, coach and speaker" Cliff Arnall took the concept even further in 2005 when he declared the third Monday in January "Blue Monday" — the so-called saddest day of the year.

Arnall claimed to have developed his "Blue Monday" theory using a statistical mathematical equation, but he eventually revealed he'd been working for a British travel company when he conceived it.

Nevertheless, mental health experts say there are plenty of factors that could contribute to the January blues and, luckily, plenty of ways to counteract them.

HOLIDAY HANGOVER

While the December holidays are a source of cheer for some, for others, they mean uncomfortable family gatherings, painful retrospection and a flood of self-doubt.

"By year-end, people are feeling the burnout," said Abi Sriharan, professor of systems leadership and innovation at the University of Toronto, in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.

"You kind of re-evaluate your life and your priorities. Everyone says 'OK, let me think about what I want to do next year and am I going to be able to do this'?"

During milestones like birthdays and the start of a new year, Sriharan said people tend to evaluate themselves on the past year's performance. Sometimes, she said, people are prone to believing there is a large gap between who they want to be — or who they think they ought to be — and who they actually are.

"There's dissonance between your real self and your ought-to self," she said, adding that holiday gatherings with family can exacerbate this sense of dissonance if "you're going into a family gathering and they expect you to be something or someone and you're not."

Sriharan recommends that anyone struggling with this gap should try and set realistic goals and take small, manageable steps toward achieving them. Setting lofty financial, personal growth or health and fitness goals and trying to achieve them quickly can lead to discouragement and burnout.

She said it's also important to focus on the things you want to improve for the sake of your own happiness and well-being, rather than the things you might change to appease others.

"Another option for people who are feeling this is also talking to a trusted friend or colleague or family member…because sometimes having those compassionate conversations with someone will help you re-evaluate your situation," she said. "And be kind to yourself, because if you feel there's a gap, you can't fix the gap overnight. It's going to take some time and work."

SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

It's typical for about 15 per cent of Canada's population to report feeling less cheerful during the winter months, says University of Toronto psychiatry professor Mark Berber. But for about three per cent of Canadians, Berber says, the short days and long nights of winter trigger a mood disorder known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

"There is data to support the concept of the disorder known as seasonal affective disorder," Berber told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. "So that's real, it does exist and it affects people in Canada because of our long, cold winters."

Seasonal affective disorder is widely recognized by mental health professionals as a form of seasonal depression, though its cause is not entirely understood. It appears to be triggered by changes in sunlight exposure during the fall and winter, which Steve Joordens, University of Toronto psychology professor and founder of a mental health advocacy campaign called the GenWell Project, says can cause our vitamin D levels to drop.

"Generally it is the case that our levels of vitamin D affect our mood states," Joordens told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. "So in the winter, unless you take actions to prevent it, you're just naturally going to get less of the best source of natural vitamin D, which is the sun."

Researchers haven't solved the mystery of why some people are more susceptible to SAD than others, but the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports that among people living far north and south of the equator — where SAD is more common — women, young people and people with a family history of SAD or other forms of depression are more likely to be diagnosed with the condition.

Two of the most common remedies prescribed to treat SAD include vitamin D supplements, for those whose bodies easily absorb vitamin D, and UV lamps that simulate the sun.

"Light has a certain mojo on us and really getting enough of that light can help us in lots of ways," Joordens said. "So that's why a lot of psychologists would recommend those sorts of lights as a way of naturally contending with the SAD effect."

Joordens said how people spend their time — and who they spend it with — can also make a big difference during the darkest, coldest time of the year. Joordens said anyone looking for a quick fix should consider activities that are natural mood boosters, like dancing, singing karaoke or seeing a comedy show.

"They are positive because they release positive hormones into our body which makes us feel a lot better," Joordens said, adding that activities that make us smile and laugh can also help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

For a more enduring solution, spend time building social connections. Winter can be isolating, and Joordens said it's important to maintain relationships with a few people we feel deeply connected to, as well as a wider network of casual friends. Being able to keep in touch with friends and family via text message and social media is great, but Joordens said it is no substitute for connecting over the phone or face-to-face.

"When we feel connected to others, it makes us feel safer and that generally makes us feel more positive," Joordens said. "A lot of people have lost a lot of social connection in their life, and one of the things I recommend is to prioritize that."

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