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Feeling SAD This January? Here's How To Banish The Blues.

The third Monday of January is known as Blue Monday. Yes, we even have a specific day noted for sadness.

The timing makes sense. In most of the U.S., January its the coldest month. Sunlight is limited and we spend more time indoors. Add Covid and a few years of social distancing and it’s easy to understand why depression is more prevalent these days.

Although there may be a specific day recognized for sadness, feeling down for an extended period could be the sign of a more serious illness. If your depression lasts for more than a few weeks, it's a good idea to seek help.

If your blues are tied to the months of January, February and March, you may have a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is more common during the winter months when we don’t see as much sun. Sunlight exposure stimulates the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps control your circadian rhythm, the body's internal 24-hour sleep/wake clock. A lack of light throws off your circadian rhythm and can cause your brain to produce too much melatonin (a sleep hormone) and release less serotonin (a feel-good brain chemical). Light also helps to regulate your sleep patterns and overall well-being.

So what to do when feeling blue?  Here are some recommendations:

Get exercise: Seriously – only 20 minutes of exercise three-to-five times a week has been shown to improve mental health by reducing anxiety and depression while improving self esteem and cognitive function. And you don’t need laborious exercise routines, either. Take your dog for a jog or go on a brisk walk. Buy a stationary bike. Exercise along with videos on YouTube.

To get the maximal amount of mood-boosting serotonin, your exercise time should include at least 10 minutes of consistent cardio to ensure that you elevate your heart rate. That's when your body benefits the most from working out – by getting more oxygen and blood to your brain and muscles.

Engage in light therapy: It works wonders. A light therapy box mimics outdoor light. Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts moods and eases other symptoms of SAD. It's best to use the light box in first hour after waking up in the morning. Keep your eyes open but don’t look directly into the light.

Light therapy boxes are available on Amazon, and they don’t cost a lot. Use it for 20-30 minutes a day, placing it about 24 inches away from your face. Most people respond well within three-to-five days. Of course if it's sunny out and not freezing, you can take a nice walk or just sit and absorb about 20 minutes of sunlight.

Utilize aromatherapy: Research has shown that it’s possible to sniff your way to happiness. The human nose is packed with millions of receptors that send information to the parts of the brain that process emotion and learning. It's why smell can often be more evocative of a memory than any of our other senses.

One of the most invigorating scents comes from citrus fruit. Citrus smells have a number of other benefits, including boosting your mood, sharpening your focus, and lowering anxiety. Another aromatherapy heavy-hitter, Lavender, is regularly recommended for providing feelings of well-being. Studies have found that lavender can reduce anxiety and depression and leave you feeling more relaxed. 

Learn something new: Whether it's reading a book, undertaking a new hobby, learning a new language, or learning how to play an instrument, doing something different is a great way to boost self-esteem and improve brain function. Winter can be the perfect time to try something new … and learning a new skill enhances motivation.

Connect with people: Set up a Friday night Zoom happy hour with friends. Reach out to anyone you have not spoken to for a while and tell them how much they mean to you. Express gratitude and loving thoughts. You’ll improve your mood (and likely theirs) with this small feel-good gesture.

Give Back: You don’t have to be a millionaire for your contributions to matter. Whenever there is an opportunity to give back, do it. Donate food to the local food bank or pet shelter. Donate clothing or things your don't need around the house. Volunteer to read a book to a child or a senior. Helping others is a natural mood lifter.

CR, Faulkner G, PMC US Library of Medicine
Mayo Clinic