How To Get Through Blue Monday (And The Whole Week)
By now we know that the concept of Blue Monday – the third Monday in the month of January or, as some would call it, the saddest day of the year – is little more than pseudo-science. In fact, the term was coined by a UK-based holiday company to, presumably, sell more holiday bookings. However, in a world where it can be hard to talk about things such as sadness and depression, even with your mates, Blue Monday offers a helpful gateway into a conversation about mental health. Or, at the very least, a good opportunity to ask somebody how they’re doing.
One of the reasons Blue Monday has found purchase in the cultural conversation, especially in the northern hemisphere, is because of its link – however scientifically tenuous – to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Short days, long nights, a general lack of light and sun can make us feel, well, blue. And January can be particularly bleak weather-wise. But according to Dr Doris Brothers, a psychologist/psychoanalyst who practices in New York City, it’s likely that, in many cases, SAD exacerbates existing symptoms of depression. “There are all kinds of studies that show that when there’s less light in the wintertime, people’s moods are affected. We are creatures of our world and are affected by all kind of things. SAD is a real thing. But usually, for people who are very, very affected by it, it’s more than just the season. There are things going on that are being darkened.”
In other words, how affected you are by seasonal changes might come down to the difference between simple sadness and depression. “Sadness is tied more to a specific situation or relational configuration,” says Dr Brothers. The feelings that arise around the death of a beloved pet, a tough break-up or even a political upset usually fall into the sadness camp. You may feel sadness about this specific thing, but with time it passes and you’re still able to enjoy other things unrelated to the situation.
Depression, on the other hand, tends not to be limited to a specific situation. “It may be triggered by something, but it tends to generalise,” explains Dr Brothers. “It’s kind of like a slowing down, a weightiness, a lack of energy, a depletion, a feeling of ‘let me just take to my bed’. That’s how we know it’s depression and not sadness.”
There are no hard-and-fast rules about depression – it may look different from one person to the next. But things to look out for (in yourself, and in people in your life) include changes in daily habits and functioning, withdrawal and isolation, increased desire to sleep and a decreased desire to go outside. “Some people find solace in food, others can’t eat,” says Dr Brothers. Mental health professionals use the term anhedonia to describe many of these symptoms, which means basically lack of pleasure. “The food doesn’t taste so good, things that would make you happy don’t give you any pleasure anymore,” says Dr Brothers.
And if there are varied symptoms, there are probably as many, if not more, varied causes. “There are as many causes as there are human beings” explains Dr Brothers. “One thing that might get to one person might glance off the next. Losses or traumas can trigger depression. Even stressors like moving – where what is familiar and certain in one’s world is shaken up – can remind us of earlier trauma. It’s very individual.”
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a single person alive in adulthood who hasn’t had a single period of depression”
And very common, she adds. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a single person alive in adulthood who hasn’t had a single period of depression.” The World Health Organization has found that at any moment in time four per cent of the world’s population – or about 300 million people – is suffering from depression.
So, what can we do when we or someone in our lives seems to be suffering from depression? The answer is deceptively simple, although for many people (men especially) not particularly easy to implement: talk to someone. “It’s often easier, especially for men, to talk to a trained professional,” says Dr Brothers. “Sometimes, people need antidepressant medication, [especially if] they are not amenable to the kind of healing therapeutic relationship that is needed to address depression.” But a therapeutic relationship, she says, is the gold standard in getting through a clinical depression. “If you don’t want to get professional help, the next best way to go is to find someone you trust and who can really be there for you.”
But, if a friend seeks you out, resist the urge to try to “fix them”, advises Dr Brothers. “One of the big issues is shame.” So making suggestions like “go for a run” or “do yoga” or “eat healthy” probably won’t land, and might just make the person feel worse about where they are in their lives. “It can feel very shameful to reveal that one isn’t chipper and just going on with life. If the listener is able to meet them with some sort of reciprocity, I think that that helps a lot.” And, beware of misunderstanding who does and doesn’t get depressed. “There are people who exercise and do yoga and eat right and they get depressed. These are not sure fixes.”
If hearing the four per cent statistic isn’t enough to make you believe that depression is a lot more common – and therefore nothing to be ashamed of – than you think, Dr Brothers also offers some anecdotal clinical evidence. “It’s a little hard not to be both sad and depressed in today’s world. England has gone through the whole Brexit thing, and climate change, and what’s going on in the US… We’re all kind of shell-shocked by the changes that have been taking place in the last year or so.” Her patients are coming in talking about the world around them more than ever. “In my clinical experience, when people are depressed, it’s related to something understandable that’s going on,” she says. But there’s hope: “The most healing thing is to connect in a meaningful way with another human.”
So, in honour of Blue Monday – real or imagined – don’t crawl back under the covers or call into work sick. Call a friend. “It’s all about intimate relationships,” says Dr Brothers, “because we are all connected.”
For advice on medical issues, you should always consult your local doctor or medical practitioner
Illustration by Mr Michael Parkin