January is generally seen as the most sombre month of the year thanks to the post-Christmas blues, a sharp drop in temperature and minimal daylight hours.
And that’s just during a normal year.
Throw coronavirus into the mix, with rising figures and a third national lockdown, and it’s safe to say that January 2021 is taking a toll on our mental health.
“There are many reasons why January can quite often be a blue month,” psychologist Lee Chambers tells Yahoo UK. “The days are still short and many people feel like hibernating, rather than embracing winter, and we get less natural light exposure and are less likely to be active and outdoors in nature.
“There is no doubt that the pandemic has amplified this feeling, especially given the easing before Christmas and tightening in January. There is still the underlying anxiety of a pandemic that has the potential to end lives. Still, many of us hoped that January would be the road to moving positively out of the pandemic to a state of relative normality.”
Watch: 5 top tips to boost your mental health
Chambers adds that usually in January, we can rely on “re-engaging with our social hobbies” to help us feel connected, but this year many of these remain inaccessible.
It’s no secret that the pandemic is affecting our mental health. In October last year the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that the pandemic has “disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide” all while the demand for mental health services was increasing.
The WHO survey of 130 countries found that bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear were triggering mental health conditions and exacerbating existing ones, and that many people were facing increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia and anxiety due to the pandemic.
While it may feel like we are in the depths of the pandemic at the moment, there is hope on the horizon as a third vaccine, Moderna, was approved to use in the UK in the past week and there has been an estimated 2.4million vaccinations given in the UK so far.
Watch: Will vaccines provide the way out of lockdown?
How to look after your mental health
As we ease further into January, Chambers recommends setting a mental health goal that is “actionable and small”.
“Write down a few things you are grateful for every day and why you are grateful for them. Aim to be kind at least once a day, to others and yourself,” Chambers says.
“Prioritise your self-care, do something that recharges you. Get outside and get some natural light as it impacts our circadian rhythms, mindfulness, and sleep. Even better if you can get out into nature and embrace the winter in clothes that feel like they are hugging you.”
Sleep is also an important factor when it comes to mental health.
“Sleep has a massive impact on your emotional and hormonal regulation and affects your mood, thoughts, and actions,” Chambers adds.
“If you are struggling to sleep due to anxiety, make sure you have a relaxing nighttime routine and that your sleep environment is calming, cool and dark.”
After the annual Christmas indulgence, getting back to eating well can also do wonders for your mental health as can limiting your screen time as much as possible.
“Eating well is paramount to getting our mind into a positive place, so try to eat as nutritious a diet as you can. Get rid of the Christmas leftovers and try to eat wholesome food 80% of the time, giving yourself some space and forgiveness for your favourite comfort foods when you're feeling a bit low,” Chambers continues.
“Managing your screen time is certainly harder when there is less to do, but the constant negative stimulation of news and social media has a psychological impact on us over time. Let's make an intentional effort to choose what we consume and consider how we can be educated instead of entertained. We can reap the benefits of technology and reduce the downsides.”
Chambers also encourages us to be as social as possible - staying connected to friends, family and colleagues via our various means of technology as talking and listening are “powerful in making us feel like we have a shared human experience”. This can lead to us feeling less lonely, too.
How to stay positive
While the news can feel a bit bleak at times, remaining positive is all about training your mindset to do so.
“It is easy to look to the future and see all the negatives, as we have an evolutionary bias for this that kept us safe when predators and danger surrounded us in the past,” Chambers adds.
“The first way to remain positive is to reflect on your past, look at what you have achieved, how you have grown and how you have got through difficult times.”
He also suggests avoiding negative news and social media where possible and, instead, targeting our consumption towards positive people, TV and news sites.
Practicing gratitude is another way to enhance our positive nature.
“We should make small plans that we can control, so we feel less uncertainty, and when things go well, we should celebrate those small victories as that builds up a positive resonance inside of us that makes us more resilient,” Chambers continues.
Ultimately, it’s about taking each day as it comes and embracing the small joys.
“I often advise my clients to consider listening to a few minutes of a positive podcast, to write down something that went well, or to put your favourite tune on and dance around,” Chambers says.
“Going for a walk often works wonders and finding a mediation or mindful practice that works for you can also be powerful. Being kind to yourself or somebody else is an easy way to feel amazing, as is being a little selfish and having some time just for you.”
So whether you find joy by watching your favourite TV show, reading a book, singing show tunes at the top of your lungs or even planning potential trips for when the pandemic passes, every positive practice can have a big impact on your mental health.
Watch: Five top tips from psychologists for staying positive this January