Why this Blue Monday we're more likely to feel overwhelmed than ever before
We thought 2020 was a year like no other but we’re not even a month into 2021 and we’re already over it.
Having barely taken the Christmas decorations down, PM Boris Johnson announced earlier this month that England was going into a third national lockdown.
Sure we’ve been here before, twice before to be precise, but this time round our previously positive “we can do this” resolve seems to have dwindled.
From having to tackle round two of the work/life/homeschool juggle, to anxiety over the rising numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths, and all without a hug from our family and friends, it’s little wonder so many of us are feeling somewhat overwhelmed.
As if we haven’t got enough to contend with, January also brings us Blue Monday, which is considered the most depressing day of the year.
Read more: How to look after your mental health this January
Falling on the third Monday of the year, the term was coined by psychologist Cliff Arnall, who came up with a “formula” for the height of the January blues after he was asked to do so by travel firm Sky Travel.
While this was a marketing stunt, it is widely thought that January is a month when many of us struggle.
And this year, with everything going on, Monday 18 January, 2021, looks set to be the bluest of all Blue Mondays.
“As the festive season has come to an end, lockdown continues to keep us shut up in our houses and the cold, wet and dark winter weather rages on, some of us will experience feeling a little blue,” explains Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of mental health and self-development platform Remente.
Though Eék is not a believer in the day itself, he believes the winter months, and January in particular, can leave us all feeling a little more blue than the rest of the year.
This year, lockdown will no doubt play a role in this being one of the toughest Blue Mondays in memory for some.
During the third national lockdown, “many people across the UK may be finding that they feel more stressed, anxious and overwhelmed than ever,” Eék explains.
“When confronted with difficult feelings, it can be challenging to think and act rationally, and even function in a way that is normal to us. This is a completely natural response to an ever-changing and uncertain situation.”
Eék says feeling overwhelmed is the brain’s reaction to an overload in thoughts and emotions.
“It is a signal telling you to ‘stop, pause, step back and take a minute’,” he explains.
So what’s different about this lockdown and why is it making us feel so overwhelmed?
According to Eék, the pandemic has inevitably caused a lot of uncertainty for all of us and, for those who regularly suffer from anxiety, or have suffered particularly this year, the darker months, cold and wet weather, paired with a third lockdown may be exacerbating those already prevalent feelings.
“Additionally, because we are now in a cycle of entering and exiting lockdown, it can feel as though returning to ‘normal’ is less and less attainable, and the uncertainty around when we may be able to leave lockdown, or if a fourth lockdown will follow, can become a point of concern and fixation, leading to increased anxiety and negative feelings,” he adds.
Pamela Roberts, psychotherapist at the Priory’s Woking Hospital, believes we’re currently experiencing a sense of collective trauma, which is contributing to feelings of overwhelm right now.
“We aren’t brilliant at processing complex emotions; our culture doesn’t help us, as news and social media is ‘drip fed’ to us,” she explains.
Read more: Healthier You: 5 Top Tips To Boost Your Mental Health
While we adjusted to previous lockdowns, Roberts says many of us were left with lingering feelings of anxiety.
“Lockdown 3.0 may therefore be triggering all sorts of negative emotions from the other lockdowns, and exacerbating them,” she explains.
“So we are being ‘re-triggered’, having thought we might have found a platform of safety, mentally speaking. It can be exhausting, and draining.”
Watch: Why winter could be the worst season for mental health
What happens to your body when you’re feeling overwhelmed?
According to psychotherapist Ruairi Stewart, aka The Happy Whole Coach, being constantly overwhelmed can activate the body’s fight or flight response.
“On a physical level this mobilising your body to take some sort of action can leave you hyper vigilant, keyed up, irritable, fatigued, prone to mood swings and manifesting itself as a low tolerance for stress,” he explains.
“This is also likely to take a toll on your relationships with others impacting on your ability to stay calm and present, with so much going on internally with negative ruminative thoughts, it won’t take much for a person to feel overwhelmed and as if the pandemic is sending them over the edge.”
Stewart says the longer people stay in this headspace, can have a negative impact on physical wellbeing.
“It can also have a negative impact on relationships with all the added pressure and being forced to adapt to so much restriction, he explains.
“Parents are having to take on homeschooling roles as well as maintaining a household and possibly work from home – it’s a lot to process.”
The good news is, there is something we can do about it.
If you are finding yourself feeling overwhelmed, there are a number of small actions you can take and changes you can make to ease those feelings and gear up for a more positive Blue Monday and beyond.
Read more: How to learn from failure, according to a psychologist
How to tackle feelings of overwhelm and feel more positive
Take a tech break
As we are finding ourselves spending more time at home, Eék says we should be wary of too much screen time.
“Research has shown that digital overload can contribute to feelings of anxiety, as getting constant notifications throughout the day causes our bodies to produce more of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can cause nervousness, anxiety and eventually leave us feeling overwhelmed,” he explains.
The barrage of news about the pandemic that we get through our devices can also cause or worsen feelings of anxiety.
“To help avoid overstimulation, you may want to set aside some time where you put your phone away or avoid screens entirely to help your brain recover from the stresses of the day.”
Reframe your mindset
Acknowledge that you cannot control the current situation, only your reaction to it.
“Mindfulness and goal-setting can help manage how we react to the world around us and, in turn, put us more at ease,” Eék explains.
Tune into your feelings
Learn to pay attention to your thoughts and challenge the narrative if it’s mainly fear based.
“What would you say to your best friend to give them reassurance? Look for the positives in this experience and recognise how resilient you have already been, adapting to the first two lockdowns,” suggests Stewart.
“What did you do well first time round and what will you do differently this time that would help you cope better?”
Pause and take a deep breath
Eék suggests starting the day with meditation or breathing exercises. “These simple but effective exercises may help you to centre yourself, preparing you to face the rest of the day,” he explains.
One such technique is to breathe in slowly through your nose, whilst counting to ten. Then exhale through your mouth, again counting to ten slowly whilst consciously dropping your shoulders and relaxing your body.
“You can repeat this until you feel calm and relaxed enough to get moving again,” he adds. “Practising these exercises at different times throughout the day, or in the moments you find yourself feeling really overwhelmed, can help to alleviate negative feelings and help you to calm your mind.”
Practice being in the present
If you start to notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, try to recognise what led you to this feeling and practice being “in the now”.
“Stop and listen to what you can hear, and ‘stretch’ your hearing beyond that, to things you can’t hear,” suggests Roberts. “Can you hear things like birds for example? Do the same with temperatures and textures. What can you feel around you that is hot, warm or cold, or soft or ruffled.
“Imagine opening a book, and feeling the pages and noticing the smell of the book. Imagine sand running between your toes. Does it remind you of another time or place? These sorts of exercises can change the pattern of your thinking and stop you going into ‘auto-pilot’ with negative thoughts.”
Roberts suggests doing a distraction activity for 10 minutes to avoid ‘excessive’ thinking. “It can be as simple as taking a shower, or getting a hot water bottle and wrapping yourself in a blanket,” she says. “Do something calming and soothing, and be compassionate to yourself.”
Read more: How our lifestyles became less healthy in first lockdown
If you are feeling overwhelmed or struggling to cope, always seek help from your local GP. “Maintaining good mental health is as important as maintaining good physical health,” Eék says.
“Just as you would seek help from your doctor if you were injured, your GP is there to listen, to talk to you, and can direct and/or refer you to a mental health specialist if needed.”
You can also look to mental health charities that are there to help, such as Anxiety UK, Mind or Rethink Mental Illness for additional resources.
For further help
The Samaritans charity offers emotional support to people in distress and those who are struggling to cope. You can call them from any phone for free on 116 123. You can email email@example.com and a Samaritans volunteer will respond.
Mind is one of the UK's leading charities. For support you can call their Infoline on 0300 123 3393, email firstname.lastname@example.org or text 86463.
The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) has a helpline number which is 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.