The 9 Challenges of January

The 9 Challenges of January

by Dr Emma Gray - 5th January, 2023

If December is the ‘season to be jolly’, January is the season to be depressed. Hot on the heels of the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ is the most emotionally and psychologically challenging.

At The Harley Psychology & Therapy Group requests for therapy triple in January with people feeling more depressed and anxious than at any other time. So why is this time of the year so difficult?

1. Family time
At Christmas we often find ourselves spending an extended period of time with our family, and as no one has an uncomplicated relationship with those closest to them, Christmas will always present challenges.

On the flip side, if your relationship with your family is complex in the sense that you do not spend the time with them, this creates another whole set of challenges that will need to be negotiated. Either way, there will always be fall out to deal with in January which can leave the best of us feeling anxious, depressed and generally unsettled.

2. Unstructured time
As a species we like routine, it makes us feel safe, it is a way of creating predictability and order and helps us to feel in control. At Christmas we take time off work and swap our routine for days, often weeks, of unstructured time.

Our days can easily become focus-less and without a sense of purpose and achievement we can be left feeling lethargic and unsettled. Unstructured time also creates space for rumination and worry, a recipe for anxiety. Despite returning to our routine in January, for some this unstructured time may have stirred up dormant fears and doubt that are harder to dismiss when faced with the other challenges that January presents.

3. Unmet expectations
At Christmas we are expected to have such a wonderful time, the media is saturate with images of people enjoying themselves surrounded by equally merry friends and family. If this is not our experience we can be left feeling anxious and isolated from others, as if there is something wrong with us.

This feeling can often be hard to shake off come January and is frequently the reason for plummeting self-esteem and accompanying feeling of self-doubt and depression in this month.

4. Anti-climax
And when it is all over, despite all of the challenges of Christmas, it is still all over and this reality brings with it at best feelings of deflation and flatness, at worst straight forward depression.

5. Nothing to look forward to
The simple truth is that on a day to day basis our lives are reasonably repetitive; as mentioned in part one of this blog we set things up in this way because as a society it makes us feel safer and more in control and therefore more productive.

However, the downside of this daily grind is a sense of tedium. With no light at the end of this tunnel of monotony we things can quickly start feel a little flat and even for those without a history of mental health problems, this flatness can turn into something more akin to depression.

In January many of the things that we look forward to feel like a long way off, holidays, the summer and of course Christmas as a result January can feel like a waste land of negativity.

6. Weather
It is a well-known fact that the weather can affect our mood so much so that the cause of a specific mental health disorder is at attributed to a lack of light; Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). For many of us in January it will be dark both when we leave the house in the morning and when we return and this coupled with a plethora of glooming wet days does little to lift our spirits.

Many people also find that the weather in January prevents them from engaging in outdoor activities that are pivotal to their health and well-being and an absence of such opportunities over an extended period can quickly have an adverse effect on mood.

7. New Year’s resolutions
Usually around mid-January most of our New Year’s resolutions will have fallen by the way side, leaving us with anything from a mild sense of irritation at our lack of resolve to an overwhelming sense of failure, particular if the resolution was connected in some way to our self-esteem (e.g. weight loss).

New Year’s resolutions are a risky business, particularly as we often see the new year as an opportunity to make a ‘new start’ and so set goals that are unrealistic and unsustainable.

8. Permission to feel depressed
It may sometimes seem as if we are being given permission to feel depressed in January. An example of this is the concept of ‘Blue Monday’; this is the third Monday in January and is thought to be the most depressing day of the year, apparently calculated using a number of factors including weather, debt, time since Christmas and time since failing New Year’s resolutions.

Another concept is Janxiety or January-based anxiety which supposedly includes symptoms such as tiredness, money worries and nostalgia about Christmas. Permission to be miserable can introduce a sense of comradery, a sense that we are all in the same boat but for some, usually those with pre-existing problems with anxiety and depression, it can sap the last little bit of motivation that they have to drag themselves out of bed in the morning.

So far we have looked at why January can be such an emotionally and psychologically challenging time. Finally we will look at how to overcome these challenges and protect yourself from negative emotions that may spiral into depression and anxiety.

1. Dealing with Christmas
Make preparing for the psychological and emotional challenges of Christmas as much a part of your pre-festivities as putting up your tree. Measure your expectations for the time with your family based on your actual family not the ones that you see in the media.

Try to anticipate specific flashpoint and prepare a strategy for dealing with them that will result in the least amount of stress and upset for you.

Also, ensure that your days have some focus and structure, something that allows you to feel a least a small sense of achievement at the end of each day, for example a brisk walk that will clear your mind of the complexities of family life and offers some probably, much needed exercise.

Alternatively use the extra time to read that book that you have been meaning to. Finally, remember, no experience is all one thing, either good or bad, so expect a slightly bitter sweet experience at Christmas, accept that this is normal and then aim to let go of the bitter and seek out and hold on to the sweet.

2. Have something to look forward to
Change the feel of January by filling it with frequent little treats to look forward to, the next bank holiday is a long way off. Something to look forward to in the not too distant future will draw your mind away from the daily grind and pull you towards it creating positive energy and motivation to push through what is immediately in front of you.

3. Embrace the weather
Try to find the positives in the cold days and dark evenings of January, enjoy wrapping up warm, cosy nights in, seasonal foods, the contrast with summer. If the weather prevents you from engaging in enjoyable activities/hobbies, find others that are more seasonally appropriate. The weather will do what it will do, we can either choose to embrace this and make the most of it or let it drag us down into depression.

4. Change your expectations for January
First, ensure that any ‘resolutions’ or life style changes are achievable and sustainable, there is nothing more depressing than setting ourselves up to fail and maybe consider postponing more challenging changes to a different time of the year.

Second, accept that you may need to work a little harder to staved off depression and anxiety in January and plan for this, a plan prepared in advance is always more effective than one cobbled together at the last minute or no plan at all.

If you are suffering with any of the issues discussed in this article and would like to seek professional help then you may find our Problems Pages helpful.

Dr Emma Gray

Dr Emma Gray

I am often the first person with whom my patients share significant and intimate thoughts and memories; I never take that privileged position for granted nor the opportunity to help someone to feel better about themselves and discover a more fulfilling life. One of my colleagues once described me as a natural psychologist; I guess she was alluding to the fact that I feel at ease being a therapist, I can empathise with people’s distress and discomfort but don’t feel overwhelmed by it, I can understand their problem and know how to help, it has always just felt like what I should be doing.

Read more about my approach to counselling here...

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