Now I’ve said my “Happy New Year”s and “liked” all the inspirational, motivational, positive, mindful, go-getting, up and at ’em in 2018, grab life by the horns and eat only leaves, new year/new me posts on social media, can I creep my freezing hand upwards, admit I loathe January and ask to be excused from the whole terrible month?
January Blues, post-Christmas slump, Blue Monday (the third in January), Acute Post-Bank Holiday Depression Syndrome – all are common terms for the medically recognised beginning-of-the-year sadness, depression, irritability, apathy and lethargy. Seasonal Affective Disorder (of which I am not a sufferer) peaks in January, as do, according to the Samaritans, UK suicide rates. While I am mercifully in the less serious category, I’m not at all surprised that some people feel they simply can’t cope.
I’ve always felt extremely grim at this time of year. My low-level depression begins with hauling the naked, skeletal Christmas tree into the street, to be cleared away with soggy, torn wrapping paper and other detritus of good times past, and doesn’t much improve until February. There’s some comfort in knowing I’m far from alone. The post-Christmas period is when David Bowie and Carrie Fisher died, a time when we’re all poorer and heavier than before, with an interminable wait ahead of us before payday. We’re crawling out of bed in darkness and returning to work before we’re ready and I, for one, invariably feel overwhelmed by huge projects I’ve yet to start, the pressure to achieve goals within a neat 12-month timeframe, the anxiety and panic around what might happen to the world in the year ahead. New Year’s resolutions – commitments made at a time when I am least healthy mentally – are a non-starter. I’ve long since given up the cycle of pretence of joining a gym I know full well I’ll never visit and, despite not being a heavy drinker, I wouldn’t dream of jumping on the Dry January bandwagon at the very time when a comforting wine is not so much a vice, more a medical imperative.
If you feel fabulously gung-ho and ready to slay in 2018, go forth and enjoy your good luck. But if you are in the grips of a festive comedown that leaves you despondent, weepy and feeling left behind, I’m with you, each and every January. This is how I’ve learnt to cope:
Keep it small
Quitting booze, dairy or cigarettes, changing career, learning a new language or starting a new business – all are admirable and exciting if you feel up to the challenge. But I know that small victories from realistic, lower-stake endeavours can make you feel just as good without the threat of failure. Going out of your way to do a small favour for someone appreciative – either a stranger or loved one – imparts an immediate sense of wellbeing, as does the completion of minor domestic tasks. This week, I’m going to clear out an entire clothes drawer, sew on three buttons that have needed doing since forever and take over 100 sorted books to the Amnesty shop, and I know each will give me feelings of pleasure and accomplishment. Whatever your equivalent, keep the task manageable and the moment right – one depressed girlfriend, during a mood upswing, emptied out her entire loft, then she crashed and ended up staring at the mess, too tearful and overwhelmed even to clear a path back to her own sofa.
Few people can afford to go out lots in January and it can be extremely tempting to hunker down until it’s over, but financial lockdown and poor weather can cause feelings of isolation and loneliness to creep up on us. Rather than cram my pre-Christmas schedule, I prefer to diarise January get-togethers when everyone needs them most. Cheap dates like pizza evenings in front of the telly, group dog walks and coffee or a weekend matinee at the pictures all top up our wellbeing and keep the social machine well oiled.
A friend gave me the idea of writing down everything good that happened last year and pinning it on the kitchen wall. It forced me to see how surprisingly full my year had been
I know, I know – it seems wasteful and greedy to book time off when you’ve just had a load, but psychologists believe that one of the most effective ways of handling the January slump is in booking a small amount of time off (even if just one day) after a short period back at work. I’ve done exactly this for the first time this year and the effect it’s had on my back-to-school nerves is unprecedented. Knowing I’m in for just one week before taking a couple of days out again – even if it means making up the time and money in future months – has allowed me to ease into the new year without the the familiar dread and exhaustion.
An important act year-round, but most useful at this time. Whether or not it works for you, it’s never a bad idea to acknowledge that you have a warm house when others are enduring January on the streets, that you have a job to dread returning to and loved ones you can call in a crisis. A friend recently gave me the idea of writing down everything good that happened last year and pinning it on the kitchen wall. It forced me to see how surprisingly full and varied my year had been, despite having spent the beginning of it feeling depressed and pessimistic, and to acknowledge that this year would almost certainly level out in much the same way.
I find the need to economise one of January’s more satisfying challenges, because it forces me to be creative and disciplined. I like to batch-cook a huge vat of delicious soup from whatever I can find leftover in the fridge and cupboards, then feel smug at the astonishingly low-penny and calorie counts per portion (you can type your recipe into MyFitnessPal for these calculations, sharing them for the benefit of other users to feel extra virtuous). Another deeply gratifying and important exercise in waste control is to see if you can go a whole day a week without spending a single penny – walking everywhere, packing your own lunch, making your own coffee and living off existing supplies (if your commute makes this impossible, try using only cash – it makes for more mindful spending). This is the first year I haven’t bought a single item in the January sales and, to my amazement, it’s made me feel happier than a new frock or shoes would have.
It is absolutely fine to hate January. It is absolutely not a bad omen for the year ahead, merely a sign that your brain and emotions won’t adhere to someone else’s schedule. When February comes, you’ll have the same shot as anyone else at achieving your goals. What you are experiencing now is real, justified and extremely common, and you need to be kind to yourself and get through it. Submit to it. It will pass.
The Instagram gym bunnies may be tiresome, but they have a point. It is an unequivocal fact that moving briskly for 20 minutes per day lifts one’s mood and spirits. A needless sprint up the stairs, a premature disembarkation from the bus to work, a quick session at the local trampoline park (I’ve done this many times – it’s way more enjoyable and relaxing than you imagine), an energetic dance session in the privacy of your kitchen, a touch of Pilates or yoga on your living room floor (I’m using the Movement For Modern Life app for at-home classes) – all are instantly uplifting and a cinch to do. Punctuating them with a more substantial weekly workout, ideally outside (I’m meeting girlfriends for a romp across The Downs later this month) provides extra endorphins and an important hit of vitamin D (levels are usually at their lowest around about now). In fact, I am going to get some right now. Keep my blanket warm.