Get under your duvet and hide from the world, because Monday, January 16 will be the most depressing day of the year. Created in 2005 by a holiday company which was trying to find new ways of selling winter breaks, Blue Monday is the third Monday of January, so chosen because of its distance from Christmas, traditional cold weather and general feelings of malaise that abound during the beginning of the year.
The concept, according to leading wellness coach, GP and motivational speaker Mark Rowe is ridiculous.
“I think Blue Monday is the biggest prefabricated phenomenon that I have ever come across,” he says.
“The idea of it is ridiculous, it’s a completely made-up phenomenon that trivialises the idea of genuine depression and mental health disorders,” he says.
Rowe is the author of Prescription For Happiness, and the founder of Waterford Health Park, a renowned centre of excellence when it comes to integrated primary care. He believes our environment can dramatically impact our health and wellbeing.
“Our environment and our inner environment — that is the environment between our ears — has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing each and every day. Our physical health is very much connected to our emotional wellbeing and our psychological fitness,” he says.
Rowe says that while there is absolutely no science to back up the idea of Blue Monday, many of us feel low at this time of the year.
“Yes, this time of the year is a time when many people are feeling extra down and that’s because in Ireland we live a long way from the equator and don’t get a lot of sunlight at this time of the year,” he says.
“A lot of people suffer from what’s called winter blues. I like to say that a third of the people in Ireland suffer from winter blues and the rest of the people are in denial because I think it’s that common,” he says.
So what are the winter blues, and how do we know if we suffer from them? Rowe says that there is a huge spectrum to be aware of.
“At the severe end, you have people who are really suffering from clinical depression and they might have marked symptoms of sleep disturbance and persistent low mood, feelings of hopelessness, and these people should always seek professional help to deal with the issue,” he says.
“Then on the milder end of the spectrum, we might see people suffering from low energy, tiredness, oversleeping, changes in the appetite like craving carbohydrates, gaining weight and feeling heavy in their arms and legs,” he says.
Rowe says that these feelings are epidemic in Ireland, and that’s down to the long winter nights changing our circadian rhythm, disturbing our sleep and making us feel groggy and down. “People tend to feel irritable and more oversensitive,” he says.
“The lack of sunlight can also affect our serotonin levels, which is a neuro-transmitter which can really impact on confidence, self esteem and overall happiness. As well as that, the long nights and short days can affect our melatonin levels, so we start making too much melatonin when we don’t get enough sunlight and that in turn can affect our mood,” he says.
The answer, according to Rowe, is not at the end of a prescription bottle. Rather, we need to address our lifestyle to combat the effect of winter on our bodies. “There are lots of things we can do to combat the blues, Awareness is extremely important. If you are aware that you or somebody close to you is suffering, it can give you the clarity to take action. Knowledge is power, as I always say,” he says.
Regular exercise is a fantastic way to boost our mood, and can help to realign sleeping patterns during the longer days of the year, he says.
“Exercise is essential. We know now taking 10,000 steps a day is key to overall health. Get up and walk around every hour if you are sitting at a desk all day, get outdoors if you can. Have your coffee break outside or take a short walk at lunchtime. Get some rays, soak in some sunlight even if it’s a day that’s cloudy. It all helps,” he says.
Eating a balanced diet is hugely important at this time of the year. Rowe recommends incorporating good mood food into your daily diet during winter months to boost mood and reset the body clock.
“Start eating more food that is good for you. Specifically in terms of mood, omega 3 fats are extremely helpful. These fats can be found in nuts, seeds, oily fish, free-range eggs, kale.”
Rowe regularly advocates a vitamin D supplement to his patients. “Many people in Ireland lack vitamin D and I often recommend a vitamin D supplement. It’s hard to get enough vitamin D in your diet. A lot of people tend to go back into their shell when they are feeling depressed or sluggish. It’s almost a primitive hibernation — retreating back into our cave during winter months. Don’t go back into your cave alone! The best way to boost your happiness is to focus on someone else,” he says.