Blue Monday is a term that was created by Cliff Arnall in the UK in 2005. Originally commissioned by a travel agency in order to increase travel packages, Arnall created a formula that takes into account aspects like the length of time since Christmas, the weather, monetary considerations, motivation and potential lapses in New Years resolutions, and derived that the third Monday of the year is the saddest day of the year.
In accordance with some experts, I too refute this notion, under the premise that it is highly unlikely that a significantly higher proportion of people feel sadder on a specific date. While seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a real phenomenon, and occurs not only as seasons change in the autumn/winter, but also as they change in the spring, it takes more than one day to impact something like SAD or depression in individuals. A clinical diagnosis of depression is a longer occurring mood state (not just one day, but we are talking weeks to months), encompassing various symptoms (e.g. social withdrawal, feeling empty, irritable, hopeless or helpless, decreased energy, fatigued). Yes, some of the factors in his formula likely contribute to heightened symptoms for those who are living with depression, but his arbitrarily derived day is more a marketing scheme than a legitimate phenomenon.
When thinking about SAD, if you notice a pattern or trend for your mood, energy levels, or changes in diet, sleep, or anxiety around the changes of seasons, there are some natural ways you can positively address these symptoms. Sunlight has been shown over the ages to be a healing property (heliotherapy was a real way to treat patients, such as babies with jaundice, after the sun god), and as we lose sunlight, that can impact our bodies. Norman Doige, in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing, emphasizes that natural sunlight can reduce levels of depression, and even some cases of pain. Dr. Nahid Ahmedzadeh ND, a Toronto-based Naturopath, recommends increasing your resilience in your immune system using vitamin c, Siberian ginseng, or astragalus to boost our immune systems, in addition to increasing vitamin D intake. Foods with essential fatty acids, such pumpkin seeds, walnuts, or berries, those with lots of antioxidents, mushrooms, ginger etc. can all benefit during the winter months when our immune systems are down. “You can customize these remedies and narrow down the correct foods for your body through consulting a naturopath”, she recommends.
While Blue Monday started as a marketing tactic, leaders at CAMH and Ryerson share that they are always open to new avenues to talk about mental health, and increase awareness for signs that you or someone you love might be living with a mental health concern. As a therapist myself, I think it’s important to be aware of our moods (and the external triggers that impact it), check in with our feelings, and curiously examine our thoughts, situations, triggers and how it links to our behaviours. Recognizing that a change of seasons might make an impact on our mood can allow us to have more compassion for ourselves, reaching a place of forgiveness towards ourselves.
Instead of focusing on promoting a day that is supposedly the saddest day of the year, what might be a more positive and useful message might be a reminder for those who have started a New Years resolution, and are perhaps struggling to sustain it (my hand goes up right about now). Another myth that has been popularized and misunderstood is the notion that it takes only 21 days to build a new habit. This is not what research shows, in fact Phillipa Lally found it could take anywhere between 18-254 days to adopt a new habit, depending on a range of factors (e.g. what the habit is, traits of the person, the rewards obtained, etc.). On average, researchers found it took 66 days for a behaviour to become automatic. This is much longer than the 21 days, and for those who set their expectations to 21 days, they might get disappointed if they find themselves struggling after, still unable to automate certain behaviours. They might lose hope in themselves, and abandon something that was truly important to them.
The other myth that Lally and her team strive to dispel is the impact of 'falling off the wagon'. They found that it actually doesn’t make much of a difference if you miss a day when striving to adopt a new habit. This can be impactful for those who believe that if you have a cheat day, you will not succeed in your goals. These insights can help us reduce the time spent dwelling on the time we are unable to keep to our schedule, and give ourselves a break and rebound back to find out motivation quicker.
In the end, as I reflect on Blue Monday, I deem it important to be mindful of the labels we place on ourselves, and our society, to avoid any self-fulfilling prophecies. As humans, we might be drawn towards labels, (e.g. around the number 21, or the saddest day of the year), I personally don’t want to just fit into another statistic, nor find myself a victim to another marketing ploy. I want to be responsible for the expectations I place on myself, and I hope to be present with my own true experiences, which is what I hope for you too. Instead of accepting Blue Monday as the saddest day, be aware of what you might be feeling. Perhaps it is sadness, perhaps annoyance, perhaps it is joy. Be aware, reflective and engaged in your own experience, whatever it might be.