After the bustle and activity of Christmas and New Year, transitioning into the new year can seem particularly gloomy. In fact, many of us experience what is known as the January blues.
Last month, we explored the difference between the winter blues and the serious mental health condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Those who struggle with SAD are likely to experience chronic depressive symptoms throughout the winter months.
In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at seasonal affective disorder – particularly winter SAD – and explore how and why it is often at its worst in January.
The January Blues
The idea of the January blues has been around for quite some time. Although it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint how the name got started, the concept is straightforward: people have long struggled with especially acute feelings of sadness, anxiety, dread, and guilt during the first month of the year. Professor Ed Watkins, Director of the University of Exeter’s Mood Disorders Centre (MDC) explains that there are reasons for this specific phenomenon:
“Depressed mood is often exacerbated by a perception of a gap between how someone wants things to be and how they actually are. These actual-ideal discrepancies are highlighted at this time of year. There are all these cultural messages around Christmas and the New Year about goodwill to all people, the importance of spending time with close friends and family, having fun, and making new starts. However, for people who are isolated or finding these activities difficult for whatever reason, this stark contrast can make them feel inadequate and blue.”
There is no specific physiological evidence to show that January is harder than any of the other winter months; however, as Prof. Watkins suggests, there may be links between the cultural messaging of joy, happiness, and new beginnings and an increased sense of hopelessness and anxiety in those who are struggling to feel positive emotions at all. Although the New Year, New Me mindset might be helpful to some, it is not always productive because it suggests that older versions of ourselves are somehow unworthy or insufficient and that we need to start again from scratch to become better or improved.
Not everyone is affected by winter in this way; it can be helpful to use the idea of the January blues as a reminder to be aware that during this time of year many people are struggling with SAD and the feelings that accompany it.
Understanding Winter SAD
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that recurs at certain times each year; it usually happens for the same four or five months. In most cases, SAD begins in the late fall or early winter and continues until the onset of spring or summer. While SAD can occur year round, it is most commonly experienced during the winter in colder climates since there is considerably less sunlight.
According to Harvard Medical School, this is because sunlight stimulates our hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that helps control the circadian rhythm. Without the stimulation of the sun, we’re thrown off of our circadian rhythms and our internal clocks are out of whack. This can cause the brain to produce more melatonin – which causes feelings of sleepiness and lethargy – and less serotonin – which causes feelings of excitement and happiness. The result is a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes us to feel chronically low, unhappy, exhausted, hopeless, and socially anxious.
Symptoms of Winter SAD often include:
- Feeling sad, hopeless, or worthless
- Losing interest in things you usually enjoy
- Sleeping too much, too little, or unevenly throughout the day
- Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
Raising Awareness of Winter SAD
The January blues is a catchy term and has been used by marketers to sell products in the post-Christmas lull. While it is not a psychological phenomenon, it can be very useful as a reminder that the winter months can be exceptionally hard on those struggling with seasonal affective disorder. For those affected by this challenging condition, January can seem genuinely blue as they battle with negative feelings they know will last throughout the winter season.
Reach out to individuals in your life who might be going through a hard time, and start conversations with those around you about the reality of living with a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. Sometimes, just knowing someone is there to listen can be a great comfort at this time of year.
If you are struggling with SAD, share your experiences with the people in your life. You are not alone; many people find January an exceptionally difficult time of year, and they can empathize with your experiences, even though they may not be affected to the same extent. Communicating with loved ones is the first step to getting help with negative feelings during the winter months, and it may also be useful to speak to a medical professional if you are unable to overcome low moods and prolonged feelings of sadness.
 University of Exeter Research and Innovation Blog. (2017) Beating the January blues. https://researchandinnovation.co.uk/beating-the-january-blues/
 Kylene, J. (2023) Why “New Year, New Me” Is a Harmful Mindset. Opositiv. https://opositiv.com/blogs/blog/why-new-year-new-me-is-a-harmful-mindset
 National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal Affective Disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder
 Harvard Medical School. (2019) Shining a light on winter depression. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/shining-a-light-on-winter-depression